The promise of agricultural technology looms large for farmers. The rise of upstream startup companies with investors including the likes of Google, Verizon and major ag companies including Bayer, offers the potential for a range of benefits. But what might that look like for the future? Four firms got together in 2019 and conducted a test to find out.
Taranis, an image capture and analysis firm, teamed with drone application startup Rantizo to precision-apply products from Phytobiotics North America on test strips run by Continuum Ag LLC.
“This was multiple companies working toward exactly what a farmer wants,” says Michael Ott, CEO, Rantizo. “This was a fantastic example of Contiuum diagnosing a problem, Taranis providing images of where to go, Phytobiotics providing materials for the desired improvement — and we offered precision application.”
How it started
Mitchel Hora, CEO and president, Continuum Ag, explains that he has been working with each of the three companies individually in his business. “We talked about getting some collaboration going,” he says.
Hora took the reins to identify test fields each with a 50-by-250-foot strip for the trial. “I built the application blocks from information provided by Taranis, and Rantizo would fly on the product,” he says.
With the drone application approach of the product provided by Rantizo — in this case, a copper supplement to overcome nutrient issues in a soybean crop — it was possible to put product only where it was needed in those strips.
Taranis uses proprietary machine learning tech to read precision aerial images and identify key issues in a crop. In this case, the nutrient status of each leaf was measured using that artificial intelligence-based system.
Ofir Schlam, CEO and co-founder, Taranis, explains that in those test strips, “we could generate a prescription and send the information to the drone for pinpoint locations for application. It is really important for us to showcase the value, and quantify the value, of this imagery.”
Schlam explains the benefit of the trial: “The really big value we offer is the ability to unlock this information in almost any field.”
For Grant Hansen, Phytobiotics North America, the test offers a critical benefit in trialing micronutrients. “This was a targeted application, and it is interesting how this turned into a less-is-more approach,” he says of the targeted application approach. “Not only did we see areas where there is a problem, but we can show with high confidence whether or not we made a difference. For me as a manufacturer, that’s gold.”
The Phytobiotics product is a chelated zinc and copper micronutrient bound to two molecules of the amino acid glycine. “This is a form that the plant uses to transport heavy metals through [its system],” Hansen explains.
This approach can send useful metals from root to leaf, which assimilate quickly in the plant. Hansen says the company’s product becomes free glycine as well, which offers plant health benefits. “And it’s good for soil bacteria as well,” he adds.
While micronutrients have long been popular in specialty crops where small, high-value acreages apply these products regularly, what about the broadacre benefits? “A farmer with 2,000 acres has to figure out ways to identify micronutrient deficiencies; and in cases where there are excesses or deficiencies, they need to have corrective treatments to rebalance the plant,” Hansen says.
The promise of this precision approach offers the potential for that benefit.
Adds Hora: “We’re trying to fine-tune those little nitpicky things we’ve kind of ignored in the past.” He notes that focusing on N, P and K to solve problems — and perhaps throw on some lime — isn’t enough today. Today’s high-performing plants need more including micronutrients that can fine-tune plant balances and produce a high-quality product.
“We’re interested in working to fine-tune the balances and improve plant health,” he says.
So how did this multipronged use of high-tech tools benefit the test crops? Here are the details of the trial:
There were six of those 50-by-250-foot soybean plots near Ainsworth, Iowa. Taranis performed scans of the fields at submillimeter resolution using its proprietary technology. On the plots identified by Taranis as nutrient-deficient, Phytobiotics generated a targeted intervention or solution in the Taranis platform, and exported that shape file to be deployed by Rantizo’s spray drone.
Three different treatments were applied on two trial plots each. Adjacent nontreated strips were used as control checks. Hora designed the trial with the objective to demonstrate placement of a foliar micronutrient by a drone in a late-season soybean crop, and test resulting effectiveness.
On those six test strips, two received a solution of water, 0.25% v/v (volume per volume) nonionic surfactant and Phytobiotics Folia IQ Copper applied at a rate of 3 gallons per acre. These strips showed increases in copper uptake and overall yield increases in bushels per acre of soybeans.
Leaf tissue tests premeasured pretreatment copper content at 8 parts per million. Post-treatment analysis showed a 50% increase to 12 ppm. Soybean yield rose 2.6% compared to nontreated adjacent strips and boosted yield 1.51 bushels per acre.
Note that the product applied was not a broad spray, but a targeted application to boost plant response where a problem was identified; yet, the strip saw a yield increase. This multifaceted use of ag tech is showing promise, and work will continue in 2020.