From emerging biostimulant and niche fertilizer technology to an influx of new sensor-driven data, agriculture professionals at every level are working to better understand the mysteries of the soil; in particular, how products and practices that are employed on the farm affect the relative “health” of the soil.
For the past four years Mitchell Hora has been immersed in the development of a system that measures, calibrates, and provides recommendations for best practices and products for soil health. He started a company, Continuum Ag LLC, as a student at Iowa State University, with the ultimate goal of providing farmers with real-time soil health recommendations and evaluation of the myriad soil health products that are flooding the market.
Big Hill To Climb
Hora understands that taking on the challenge of soil health evaluation is complex and multi-dimensional, but he’s banking his efforts on three primary pillars: the Haney soil test, a proprietary software program that incorporates machine learning, and a wide range of partnerships and collaborations.
The Haney soil health test has been around for a number of years, but its utility has been limited by a lack of understanding exactly what it tells the agronomist. Hora is employing the Haney test, along with other soil test parameters, in an attempt to create a method for calibrating soil health and establishing benchmarks.
“That is really the missing piece,” Hora says. “We have to understand what is good and what is bad and how we can move the needle and make better decisions based on more thorough data.”
The proprietary database is a cloud-based system that Hora says can calibrate any soil or agronomic parameter for any geography. “I’m connecting with the country’s best technology companies and labs for ease of data entry,” he says. “My system normalizes, calibrates, and assesses data, and we are training the system to provide real-time recommendations that account for soil function, products, practices, and the farmer’s desired outcome.”
To feed the machine learning program, Hora and his agronomic team are feeding it weekly with fresh soil samples from fields under evaluation, with a goal of improving the validity of recommendations and building a deeper overall soil health knowledge base. Ultimately, he believes that this high-throughput approach could replace traditional soil sampling by providing what he believes will be more accurate and more immediate in-season recommendations.
This work is not only an effort to establish best practices for existing technologies. Hora sees potential for establishing soil health as a measure for dozens of emerging technologies in biostimulants, biological treatment products, and niche nutrients, as well as data created and collected by soil sensors.
To this end, Continuum Ag works with manufacturers from around the world who have created products that claim to provide a benefit in the soil profile.
“We’re working with a variety of biological products, humics, and specialty fertilizers,” Hora says. “We bring them to the Midwest and test them at farm scale to help understand the impact on soil health. Farmers are bombarded by products and need to figure out what is best for their farms. We’re the catalyst in the middle, providing research and facilitating the conversation.
“We certainly don’t have all the answers, but after four years we are starting to understand some things, to get and interpret data, and figure out how to improve. Overall, this data leads to my ability to provide real-time action for the emerging technology of the future.
“We can no longer treat the soil as a dead, static, growing medium and act upon it with linear equations,” Hora adds. “The soil is a living, dynamic continuum, and our platform uses machine learning to help it be just that.”