C magazine

5 tech innovations changing agriculture

Aerial photo of a tractor driving down road next to a soybean field with artistic hexagonal symbols with ag tech icons inside.

How tech experts are bringing key innovations to the farm.

Aug 26, 2021

When it comes to agriculture technology, you don’t have to be an expert to adopt it. But it helps to partner with those who are.

That’s the strategy CHS has employed in searching for ways to improve the products and services it delivers to farmers through the cooperative system. Recent partnerships have resulted in exciting innovations at several stages of crop production, from understanding soil needs to speeding fertilizer application.

Here’s a look at five innovations that are already making their way to farm fields.

Advanced soil sampling predicts issues

“Soil is the foundation for all that we do in agriculture, and we still have so much to learn about it,” says Steve Carlsen, director of proprietary products, CHS Agronomy. “For decades, soil testing has measured macro- and micronutrients and soil characteristics such as pH, but the next generation of soil analysis uses whole genome sequencing to tell us which pests and pathogens are present and at what levels.”

Drawing on the soil analytics expertise of Trace Genomics, CHS is launching Advanced Soil Analytics (ASA) this fall. The new system of soil analysis identifies levels of the five main pathogens that impact four key crops — corn, soybeans, wheat and sugarbeets — plus a measurement of organic carbon in the soil.

“We call it the six-pack,” says Carlsen, “with the five pathogens varying by crop. For instance, for corn, the pathogens that have the potential to cause the most damage are pythium, rhizoctonia, fusarium, gray leaf spot and Goss’s wilt,” he says. “But this analysis can be used to identify most common pathogens that impact other crops as well.”

Soil-based disease data was put to quick use in early 2021 by Jared Jessen, agronomy sales manager for CHS out of Brandon, S.D. He’s based in Wausa, Neb., where ASA was piloted. “In grower Chris Johnson’s cornfield, we saw high levels of fusarium, so we used an in-furrow fungicide treatment to prevent crown rot,” he says.

An agronomist does an Advanced Soil Analytics soil test in a field in Nebraska.
Advanced Soil Analytics results are helping Jared Jessen, a CHS agronomy sales manager based in Wausa, Neb., get more agronomic information from every soil sample.

In one of Johnson’s soybean fields, where white mold was a problem in recent years, the ASA results confirmed the presence of Sclerontinia sclerotiorum, the pathogen that causes it. “The results helped us pinpoint the field areas with higher pathogen levels so that we could target our fungicide applications,” says Johnson, who farms near Bloomfield, Neb. “That saved on application costs and also provides a baseline for this and other problem pathogens in our fields. That will help us measure our management progress in the seasons to come.” 

ASA gives growers valuable information that takes much of the guesswork out of crop management, Jessen adds, “all without changing the way we take soil samples. The additional work is all done in the lab.”

This high-tech soil analysis costs about $4 per acre more than typical soil sampling, he notes. “At today’s prices, one more bushel of corn will more than pay for it, and I really expect to see a three- or four-to-one return on investment from ASA.”

“This kind of information opens up a whole new understanding of our soils and allows growers and their agronomists to be predictive, rather than reactive,” adds Carlsen. “Once you notice a disease, it’s too late to avoid damage. But this will help manage disease before it becomes a major problem.” - Steve Carlsen

Advanced Soil Analysis six-pack

The new Advanced Soil Analysis test identifies the five main pathogens that cause the most trouble for four crops: 

  • Corn: Goss’s wilt, Gray leaf spot, Pythium, Rhizoctonia, Fusarium, Soil organic carbon
  • Soybeans: Soybean cyst nematode, Sudden death syndrome, Pythium, Phytophthora, White mold, Soil organic carbon
  • Wheat: Fusarium scab, Pythium, Rhizoctonia, Tilletia (bunt), Fusarium, Soil organic carbon
  • Sugarbeet: Fusarium scab, Pythium, Rhizoctonia, Tilletia (bunt), Fusarium spp., Soil organic carbon

How soil can help with carbon capture

Agriculture technology is seen as a primary solution to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, thanks to the potential to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by sequestering it in the soil. As a result, there’s now a rush to figure out how growers can capture more carbon and get paid for doing it.

While many of the logistics of that process are still being worked out, largely through private marketplaces, the first step for most growers is measuring how much organic carbon is already in their soils. The next step is to figure out how they can increase those levels.

With ASA, Jessen says growers can request analysis of soil organisms that may impact nitrogen and phosphorus efficiency, as well as total organic carbon levels. “Knowing a field has higher levels of organisms that cause denitrification will help a grower determine the value of using a nitrogen stabilizer.

“Everyone is trying to learn more about carbon capture and how they can take advantage of it,” adds Jessen. “This analysis is a good starting point, providing growers with a baseline reading of total organic carbon level.”

Jessen hopes to learn more about how different tillage practices impact carbon capture by comparing ASA total organic carbon readings from soil samples taken last spring with the results of samples pulled in the same fields this fall.

“We took readings in fields that were no-till, minimum-till and conventional-till, so it will be interesting to see how the numbers for each compare over a season and longer term. Will a change in tillage practice help a grower sequester more carbon? That’s what we hope to find out.”

Another potential way to boost carbon capture and/or use in the soil could be with updated fertilizers, says Carlsen. “We’re looking at several types of fertilizer products that could help to sequester and trap more carbon in the soil. They could become available in the next few years.” 


Related story: Carbon market bill moves through Congress


Get more data with drones 

Over the past few years, drones have been used to provide a view of fields not easily reached on foot. While drones can deliver fairly high-definition photos, the ability to quickly analyze and process the collected data has been the limiting factor in making them a more productive tool.

“Field-scouting drones use GIS software and need a lot of processing power through cloud-based computing,” explains Evan Sieling, CHS senior business analyst, precision agriculture. “The recent advances Google and Amazon have made in being able to process large data sets are helping us in agriculture. That, along with improved visual recognition software, is allowing more drone capabilities to be developed, especially with predictive modeling.

“Drones have become easier to use and can now easily cover 100 acres in 20 minutes, so we can capture more field information faster,” he says. “As a result, we can get accurate corn yield estimates at the tassel stage based on drone imagery.”

Seeing was believing for Jim Levos with CHS Dakota Plains Ag, who ran drone trials near Gwinner, N.D., in 2020. “The estimated average using drones was 152 bushels per acre, which was within two bushels per acre of the actual yield results.”

A man holding a drone stands in a corn field behind some grain bins.
Drone technology can now easily cover 100 acres in 20 minutes, capturing more field information faster.

This year, the cooperative used drones to take stand counts and yield estimates at tassel for more customers in its southeastern North Dakota trade territory.

“The stand counts are very accurate, and the pilot was able to cover a 420-acre field in about 45 minutes, so the time savings is significant,” says Levos.

CHS has been working with a company that provides the software, data management and analytics that put drones to work for crop planning and can also gather information with its own drone fleet.

“The field data the company processes can be downloaded into Agellum® or other farm management software to help growers make crop management decisions,” says Sieling. Next-generation drone technology will become more readily available at more cooperatives in the coming year, he adds.


Related story: Protect your data from cyberattacks


Fleet information at your fingertips 

During the busiest fertilizer application and spraying times, keeping equipment loaded and moving can be a scheduling nightmare. A new fleet optimization system being tested this season at several cooperatives finds the most efficient routes for applicators and helps them service more acres in a day, all while providing more frequent updates to customers, explains Sieling.

“The system allows customers to get text message updates at each stage of the process, such as when the applicator is coming to a field and when the job is finished, and to provide them with safety or compliance information they need based on the products applied.”

The GPS-based system will help agronomy suppliers keep their equipment rolling as efficiently as possible, he says. “Once hardware is installed in all equipment and the staff is trained, the new system will be fully online this fall at several cooperatives in the upper Midwest, with a broader rollout to more retailers next year.”

Real-time tracking technology allows ag customers to know when orders will arrive.
Real-time tracking technology allows ag customers to know when orders will arrive.

Driverless trucks increase efficiency

Autonomous vehicles could help solve rural labor shortages and improve overall transportation efficiencies. “The technology has been well-tested by the military and is now being adapted for construction and ag industries,” says Ben Van Straten, CHS corporate development and innovation.

He explains CHS is working with Kratos Defense to improve the efficiencies of hauling crude soybean oil between its oilseed processing plants at Fairmont and Mankato, Minn.
“We average 45 trucks making the trip daily. In peak times, that jumps to 91 truckloads a day. The pilot program being developed would use what’s called the ‘leader-follower’ strategy that employs autonomous control of a semi-truck linked to a lead truck operated by a human driver. This has the potential to double hauling productivity.”

The concept was adapted from systems Kratos Defense developed for use by the U.S. military to reduce human exposure when moving convoys during warfare. The CHS pilot in southern Minnesota is scheduled to hit the road in the next few months, he says, and could be fully rolled out in six months to one year, if state legislative hurdles are cleared. 

A breeding ground for agtech innovation

Solving current and potential challenges in agriculture requires analytical thinking, creativity, collaboration and resources. To help foster that type of problem-solving and ag innovation, CHS has committed financial support for and participation in Grand Farm, near Horace, N.D. The 130-acre farm, located 10 miles south of Fargo, features demonstration fields and research plots that will eventually surround an innovation center and collaboration spaces for agricultural startups and entrepreneurs.

Early investor 

Involvement in Grand Farm began in early 2020, when CHS became a founding partner in Plug and Play Fargo, which works to attract emerging ag tech startups to the region. Other founding partners include Bremer Bank, Microsoft Corp. and the OCP Group. Plug and Play Fargo and Grand Farm are providing spaces and opportunities for agricultural companies and researchers to test ideas and find solutions for existing or emerging farm and industry challenges.

“Collaboration is at the center of what Grand Farm is about, bringing together startup entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 companies like CHS, university researchers and farmers,” says David Black, CHS enterprise strategy and chief information officer. “Working together will help accelerate technological innovation on the farm and throughout agriculture.”

New ideas 

Projects under development at Grand Farm include real-time soil-sensing, an artificial intelligence system for fungal disease recognition, enhanced efficiency fertilizers, adjuvant enhancers and livestock bunk management technologies. Experts from CHS have teamed up with researchers at universities, USDA and Grand Farm to identify crop production research projects. CHS operates 25 acres of test plots at the farm.

“Nearly 1,000 companies are vetting new ideas at Grand Farm, and CHS is actively exploring more than 100 of them,” says Ben Van Straten, CHS corporate development and innovation. “We are excited for what this collaboration can mean for CHS and our owners.”


Check out the full Summer 2021 issue of C magazine with this article and more.