The power of sensors: helping farmers better understand crops
Just over 25 years ago, a mass flow sensor paired with GPS would drastically change how farmers viewed their fields.
Just over 25 years ago, a mass flow sensor paired with GPS would forever change how farmers viewed their fields. The combination gave them the ability to relate harvested grain to an area of a field and begin generating yield maps. A vast combination of options allow growers to be independent about their fields, with greater knowledge gain and better crops. “Because farmers recognized how much yield variation was really occurring in their fields, suddenly precision agriculture took off,” says Scott Shearer, professor, Ohio State University.
In parallel, product development based on interest in sensing soil fertility on-the-go was also gaining traction: “Our first product was a soil pH meter that measured spots in the field where corn was stunted and stressed,” says Mike Thurow, who founded Spectrum Technologies in 1987. “Through the years, a lot has changed in the industry.”
Today, sensors – both on and off equipment – measure multiple attributes to help farmers maximize yields with minimum resources. Above and below the ground, sensors can determine when more downforce is needed, define when a crop is thirsty, detect a disease before lesions even appear on the leaves, or guide how chemicals are applied.
“Sensors offer more eyes in critical areas"
Jesse Haecker, Business Manager for John Deere
A sense for sensors
Implementation of sensors in smart farming is increasingly important. Having the ability to precisely monitor in-field variability and make decisions based on data is transforming how farmers manage their operations. The confidence - offered by sensors' data - to make decisions for a whole field is a huge value point. The more the grower gets familiar with soil moisture sensing, the higher the independency when she/he has to handle an unusual situation in the field.
With Internet of Things (IoT) strategies taking shape, machine and field intel coming from myriad sensors is rapidly evolving. The first question Matt Darr asks around IoT is, “Are we trying to learn about the science of crop production or influence crop production in a single season?". “Being able to predict and react in season is a totally different value proposition than being able to show why an outcome occurred at the end of the year,” says the Iowa State University professor. “Producers have voted with their checkbook over and over. They will pay for outcome-based solutions but are hesitant to pay for solutions that only deliver knowledge without action.”
Sensors at work
The information Brandon Hunt is collecting across his western Kentucky farm not only helps identify efficiencies that lead to higher productivity and profitability but also lowers input costs and optimizes fertilizer use. “I know technology is going to make us better, but it’s a whole lot easier conversation when it is integrated inside our existing system.”
Hunt also emphasizes the importance of running several "smoke tests" to evaluate a product's technology before jumping on board. For example, he spent five years testing Trimble’s GreenSeeker on wheat. Starting with a few acres, Hunt added more acres only as the technology was validated. Testing phases vary on its user/tester, likewise, type of product. “It’s about proving the technology is making an operator as efficient as possible, and every dollar invested in the operation is being maximized, that is never going to change.”
The possibility of predicting what before was taken as unpredictable, like the weather, really empowers farmers. “The one wild card has always been the weather. If I knew what the weather was going to be, it would make it a lot easier to manage nitrogen”. It’s also why an on-farm weather station has become a critical tool. The possibility to integrate sensors to weather stations is a game changer. "An on-farm weather station gives him a different perspective on what Mother Nature is delivering and how he might alter his plans.”.
Connecting the dots
As sensor technology continues to evolve, it’s unlikely one measurement will be able to answer all the questions a farmer may have. “The power comes from combining information in new ways,” Gates says. The multiple possibilities of data integration allow growers to divide the field into 'technology layers', as well as work within different scales, from on-spot control of individual plants to controlling several remote fields at once, via mobile app.
To achieve that, connectivity is key. “When it comes to connecting all of this information through the internet of tomorrow, our industry has a huge challenge in front of it,” Haecker says.
Sensoterra is a technology startup based in Amsterdam, helping growers in agriculture, landscaping and smart cities since 2014. When working with Sensoterra soil moisture sensors, growers start to respect soil necessity for water, at the active root zone, other than traditional techniques that can cause misinterpretation. Data don't lie, on the contrary, it reduce under- and over-irrigation problems leading to reduction of fertilizers and pesticides, less pests, healthier roots, healthier plants, optimal yield to scale up and feed bigger populations. Sensors are robust, user-friendly and wireless through LoRaWAN connectivity, ready for farm-tough environments or to be integrated to other tech devices via API integration.