The Van Trump Report

“EnGeniousAg” Developing Low-Cost, Instant Read Nitrogen Sensors

Ensuring crops get the optimal amount of nutrients is one of the most straightforward ways of maximizing yields. Making sure no more than what’s needed gets applied is also a surefire way for producers to control input costs. However, knowing what those ideal levels might be can be a time-consuming and pricey challenge but new instant read sensors from ag startup “EnGeniousAg” could be a game-changing tool.          

Michael Castellano, professor of agronomy at Iowa State University and co-founder of EnGeniousAg, explains, “Getting the optimum nitrogen rate for corn is very important because right now it’s the most expensive input cost for producing corn, which has among the highest input costs of any major global crop.” It’s difficult to forecast what those needs might be from year to year, and even from field to field. Apply too little and you risk taking a yield hit, while too much leads to nitrogen runoff and wasted farm operating dollars.

Soil testing is the most common way to gauge nitrogen levels, but this can be labor-intensive and time-consuming. Instead, Castellano and his partners created a handheld sensor that measures the concentration of nitrate, a nitrogen compound, in the stalk of the plant. “You stab it and get your reading within seconds,” said Liang Dong, professor of electrical and computer engineering at ISU and one of EnGeniousAg’s cofounders. This allows farmers to make real-time nitrogen application decisions without having to wait for soil sample results. 

EnGeniousAg believes that detecting nitrate levels in the plant will also improve the accuracy of fertilizer recommendations. According to James Schnable, professor of agronomy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and another EnGeniousAg co-founder, that’s because it shows how much nitrogen has been absorbed instead of how much is available. “We think this can do a better job of identifying the estimated 10-30% of corn acres in any given year that will not benefit from the application of nitrogen fertilizer,” said Schnable. “Correctly identifying these fields creates the potential for up to $6 billion a year in savings for farmers without reducing crop yields.”

EnGeniousAg is currently working with Iowa-based Premier Crop Systems to test the nitrogen sensor. Premier will use the sensors in some of the nitrogen-rate experiments it is running with farmers. Soil tests will be run from the same plants to compare the accuracy and costs to conventional methods. Schnable says an earlier round of testing with volunteers from the Iowa Corn Growers Association already led to some adjustments.

EnGeniousAg just received a $1 million National Science Foundation (NSF) Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant that will enable the company to conduct large-scale field tests and continue development. The company will use the time to validate and improve the company’s predictive model for translating the amount of nitrate present in corn stalks into fertilizer application recommendations. EnGeniousAg is aiming for commercial release as early as next year. A video explaining more about the technology is available at the EnGeniousAg website HERE. (Sources: IAState, AgDaily)

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