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3 Ways Farmers Can Use Tech for Bigger Yields, Greater Sustainability

With technologies such as these coming to market all the time, farmers now have the option to grow more profitable, high-quality crops with more efficient input use — supporting their business, as well as the environment.

From major equipment manufacturers’ forays into robotics to startups bringing artificial intelligence into fields to improve data collection, technology is helping farmers become more profitable and efficient.

Doug Winter, a southern Illinois soybean farmer, uses a technique called variable-rate fertilizer to apply different rates of fertilizer on different soil areas within a field, according to a pre-set map based on soil samples collected over years. The objective is to optimize fertilizer inputs and crop yield. He also has a yield monitor on his combine that collects data every two seconds during harvest season.

By connecting agriculture systems equipment and sensors to what grows in the ground, farmers can streamline production and boost yield. But that’s not all agricultural technology is good for. It also helps preserve land use, protect water sources, prevent soil erosion, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and toxic runoff.

Here are just three use cases of agtech:

Better land use through data-driven modeling

Combining historical and real-time data with artificial intelligence and other technologies can help farmers get the most out of their cropland with better environmental management.

New modeling technologies can be used for field management by identifying tillage practices, cover crop planting and tile drainage status. They also provide information on sustainability metrics, such as quantification of nitrogen leaching, greenhouse gas emission, soil fertility changes and field drainage conditions, and allow farmers to account for field-level carbon sequestration and soil carbon change.

One agtech startup, Aspiring Universe — a spinoff from a University of Illinois research lab — integrates remote sensing technology, artificial intelligence, crop modeling domain knowledge and financial risk modeling to monitor and predict the performance of cropland.

The organization is on a mission to “de-risk and sustain modern agriculture for all of humanity,” said co-founder Kaiyi Guan. “We combine different sources of data and our proprietary models to determine farm-level productivity, water use, soil health and sustainability; and provide actionable insight. This allows farmers to make informed decisions on how to optimize their productivity.”

Guan’s team developed software that has provided daily, field-scale, cloudless satellite imagery since 2000. By pairing historical data and real-time projections, Aspiring Universe can produce farmland metrics on productivity and resilience, leading to increased crop yield and quality.

“One of the key goals is to help farmers achieve high yields,” Guan said. “We want to make sure farms are sustainable, improve resource efficiency and reduce the environmental footprint.”

Biologicals support crop protection

Agricultural biologicals — inputs derived from natural materials, with low toxicity for reduced environmental impact — represent one of the fastest-growing agtech segments.

An array of technologies in the category creates endless possibilities to use properties of bacteria, fungi, viruses, insects, plants and more to support crop health through solutions that deliver micronutrients; mitigate environmental stress from issues like drought; and control pests and weeds.

Cytozyme, a Salt Lake City, Utah-based crop solutions company, has developed biologicals for livestock production and aquaculture — improving production agriculture through greater efficiencies by looking at plant stress, growth and development on cellular and molecular levels.

“Only about 25 percent of genetic yield potential is expressed in most crops,” says Jeff Morgan, marketing manager for Cytozyme. “Stress — even undetectable stress — impacts yield and quality. We have found agriculture’s ecosystems are very inefficient compared to natural biological systems, so we look at how to take advantage of natural systems within production agriculture.”

Many companies are bringing products to the agricultural biologicals space, giving farming operations new ways to increase yield without harming the natural environment.

Nanotechnology reduces runoff

Nanotechnology is a rapidly evolving field with the potential to create a more sustainable, efficient and resilient agricultural system — with one of its applications in improved fertilizer efficiency.

Nanostructures act as carriers of nutrients and allow their controlled release for better fertilizer efficiency, regardless of application timing. This reduces the amount of chemicals that run off and end up in groundwater aquifers.

“Using nanotechnology to deliver plant nutrients has the potential to improve fertilizer and nutrient efficacy,” said Landon Bunderson, Ph.D., chief science officer for Aqua-Yield — an ag nanotechnology company.

Though one nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, nanoparticles have mass that matter in solution, so they can better penetrate plants instead of getting washed away.

“Our technology attracts and loads the chemical ions and molecules in inputs like fertilizer into nanoparticles,” Bunderson said. “Particles in solution typically move into plants through channels that plant cells regulate like border control. Larger nanoparticles can circumvent typical channels because they may be treated like a foreign body. They are pulled into the plant and quickly broken down, releasing a high concentration of nutrients more efficiently.”

Aqua-Yield’s delivery system has just become available in recent years. The company expects use to increase as farmers learn its value to nutrient management plans: They can use less fertilizer, saving on costs, while reducing chemical runoff.

Agtech revolution

With technologies such as these coming to market all the time, farmers now have the option to grow more profitable, high-quality crops with more efficient input use — supporting their business, as well as the environment.

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