Field Crop Sensors Determine In-Season Fertilization

Growers on the northern Plains continue to adopt precision agriculture technology and management practices.

In-field crop sensors are one of the new technologies farmers are using to help manage nitrogen fertilizer applications, particularly in corn and wheat. In-field sensors are used to apply variable rates of fertilizer across fields to maximize yields.

“This technology has the potential to increase yields by increasing nitrogen efficiency and, at the same time, protecting the environment,” says John Nowatzki, North Dakota State University Extension Service agricultural machine systems specialist. “For example, variable-rate fertilization gives farmers the option of decreasing nitrogen applications in areas with shallow aquifers, which reduces the potential for water contamination from nitrogen leaching.”

Crop sensors are mounted directly on the fertilizer application equipment and then coupled with variable-rate controllers. This allows farmers to vary fertilizer application rates to growing crops. Applying fertilizer to growing crops allows farmers to make split applications.

“In many cases, producers apply two-thirds of the recommended nitrogen fertilizer at or prior to planting and then apply the remainder as needed during the growing season,” Nowatzki says. “Farmers also can use in-field sensors to accurately estimate crop yield and get information they can use to make management decisions, such as whether or not to apply fungicides or insecticides. Crop sensors simplify the remote sensing process by transferring data directly to the computer on the tractor or fertilizer applicator in real time.”

Crop sensors function by measuring the amount of light waves that are absorbed and reflected by the plant leaves. The sensors estimate plant health and vigor by focusing light on plants and then comparing the amount of specific light waves that are absorbed by the leaves with other light waves that are reflected off the leaves.

The resulting comparisons are referred to as vegetative indices. The normalized difference vegetative index (NDVI) is the index most commonly used in remote sensing of agricultural crops. The NDVI compares the amount of red light absorbed by plants with the amount of near infrared light reflected off plants. Healthy green leaves absorb more red light than leaves that are lighter green.

Commercial in-field crop sensors use different methods to determine how much nitrogen fertilizer to apply in each area of a field. Some systems require farmers to apply ample fertilizer on a test strip in a field, which often is called a nitrogen-rich strip. The operator then drives over that area so the computer controller in the tractor can compare each area of the field with the nitrogen-rich strip.

Other systems recommend operating the sensors over representative areas of each field and making the rate decision based on average sensor readings.

Commercially available in-field sensors include Ag Leader’s OptRx, Topcon’s CropSpec, Trimble’s GreenSeeker and Holland Scientific’s Crop Circle. Each company has unique sensors, mounting techniques and methods of determining plant nutrient requirements. Current crop sensors focus on crop nitrogen needs.

Some companies recommend using one sensor for each 10-foot section of application width and mounting the sensors on the applicator booms, while others use only two sensors mounted on top of the tractor cab. The cost of each system ranges from $10,000 to $20,000.

“The results of in-field sensor research generally indicate that crop producers will use less nitrogen fertilizer to reach their goals,” Nowatzki says. “Farmers also can use this technology to advance management practices designed to maximize yields. In-field sensing technology complements in-season fertilization practices by allowing farmers to more accurately apply only the needed amount of fertilizer at each field location.”

Three NDSU Research Extension Centers are including in-field crop sensor presentations in their field day tours this summer. Nowatzki presented information on in-field sensor technology at the Hettinger REC field tour on July 10. Walt Albus, NDSU research agronomist at the Oakes Irrigation Research Site, will present similar information at the NDSU Agronomy Seed Farm field tour on July 16 and at the Williston REC field tour on July 24.

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