Adapt-N: solving the nitrogen problem through software
New online technology helps farmers conserve fertilizer and protect their crops
We have a nitrogen problem. Nitrogen is essential to our existence, a required nutrient for the plants we eat. It is the broad swath at the bottom of our own human food pyramid and it is applied by farmers to agriculture fields all over the world.
Author: Kayleigh Burgess. Source: The Guardian
From there, much of it is lost to the atmosphere, as a greenhouse gas 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Still more of it leaches into waterways, creating dead zones, like the ones that inevitably creep up in the Gulf of Mexico, decimating fish populations.
Researchers at Cornell University are hoping they’ve created the beginnings of a solution. Adapt-N, a software program developed after years of research, aims to help farmers simultaneously save money and mitigate these environmental impacts by giving them the information they need to determine how and when to apply nitrogen fertilizer to their fields.
The online tool monitors nitrogen applied and lost on cornfields across the country. Farmers input field-specific information including soil composition and field history, as well as the amount of fertilizer they apply to their fields and when. The program combines this information with real-time weather monitoring to track the nitrogen’s likely fate. It sends farmers and agronomists daily email updates and allows them to retroactively explore field histories.
According to Dr Harold van Es, professor and chair of Cornell University’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, the tool combines three major innovations: research that shows nitrogen variability can be managed, cloud computing technology, and high-resolution weather information. The latter is especially important.
“Any time you put nitrogen in a reactive form in the soil, you can lose a lot of it within a matter of a couple days,” explains van Es. “That’s primarily driven by rainfall, by precipitation.”
The first version of Adapt-N was created in 2005 and the first web edition launched in 2008. From there demand grew rapidly. The Cornell team realized they needed a company to manage the software, so they could focus on their primary work: research.
“There’s a phenomenal team of soil scientists, climatologists, and crop modellers that work on it but they’re not software platform management people and they’re not customer service people and it really just taxed them significantly,” says Greg Levow, co-founder of the tech startup Agronomic Technology Corporation (ATC).
When Cornell began its search for a private company to manage the software, Levow and his co-founders at ATC were looking for something like Adapt-N – a startup and a cloud technology project that a group of young entrepreneurs could sink their teeth into.
ATC took over management of Adapt-N at the end of 2013 through a unique public-private partnership with the university. This year, the company launched the first commercial rendition of Adapt-N, with farmers and agronomists in 25 states using the tool to manage tens of thousands of acres of corn.
Studies show that the nitrous oxide emitted from cornfields has a greenhouse gas impact of similar magnitude to the entire aviation industry of the United States.
“With greenhouse gases, most people think about carbon dioxide and maybe methane, but people don’t think about nitrous oxide and it’s a very big concern,” says Dr van Es. “If you were to say within the aviation industry we can reduce our carbon footprint by 25%, people would be saying well that’s fantastic, that is big news. We think we can do that with nitrous oxide.”
Combatting crop loss as well as pollution
Shannon Gomes is an agronomist in Decora, Iowa – corn country. He helps farmers manage 25,000 acres of the commodity crop and has 27 years of experience under his belt. Gomes uses Adapt-N with the farmers he advises, showing them how long-held practices, like applying nitrogen in the fall, can lead to lost nitrogen and lost profits.
“One of the biggest benefits of Adapt-N is as a teaching tool,” says Gomes. “We can input or change a variable to show less loss.”
Since 2011, Gomes has been a participant in field trials of Adapt-N, conducted by the team at Cornell University. Field trials conducted in a dozen states, including Iowa and New York, show results you’d expect, but also ones you might not – like the ones from the summer of 2013.
“In 2011 and 2012 we saw average and fairly dry years in much of our region and that resulted typically in a reduction in fertilizer rates”, says ATC’s Greg Levow. “However, 2013 was a very different year from a weather perspective. It was a very wet spring in much of the Corn Belt and the Northeast, so we did in fact recommend significantly more nitrogen, not in every case, but on the average certainly. That was needed to avoid yield losses that would have resulted from those crops becoming deficient in N later on in the season.”
As a result, around three quarters of New York farmers who field-tested Adapt-N in 2013 actually increased the amount of nitrogen they used compared to farmers who did not use the tool. They also increased their profits.
According to the software’s developers, this is an essential part of adaptive management.
Attracting deep-pocketed competitors
Even with years when nitrogen applications increase, the overall environmental benefits are clear. So much so that the tool has attracted the attention of an unlikely collection of players, including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Walmart.
As part of its sustainability plan, the corporate retailer committed to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with its global supply chain by 20m metric tons of carbon equivalent, by the end of 2015. Of this amount, 40% is to come from fertilizer use optimization. EDF, which facilitated some of the nitrogen rate trials for Adapt-N in the past, has been helping Walmart work with tools like Adapt-N to help its suppliers, and the farms that supply those suppliers, mitigate environmental impacts.
The market value of this technology has also attracted the attention of some of agribusinesses major players: multi-national corporations Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer. Monsanto’s Climate Pro program, which includes Nitrogen Advisor in its arsenal, claims that it can save farmers up to $100 an acre. Pioneer is also poised to launch its own cloud-based nitrogen management tool.
For the makers of Adapt-N, this comes as both a boon and a challenge. “[Monsanto and Pioneer] are two very large seed companies, of course with very deep pockets and so it has changed the competitive environment a little bit. I mean for us, as scientists, it’s a feather in our cap, because imitation is the highest form of flattery. But for Agronomic Technology Corporation, it means that there’s a lot more competition,” says Dr van Es.
While increasing adoption rates is key for reaching environmental goals, the challenge to ATC and Adapt-N is hard to ignore. In this newly competitive landscape, for Levow, it comes down to independent, unbiased recommendations.
Kayleigh Burgess is a master’s student in journalism and public affairs at Indiana University.