It’s a bright summer day in Sabin, Minnesota. The blue sky perfectly contrasts the 62 hectare golden wheat field and the brown soil underneath it. Not far away, a tractor-like machine is visible, and a steady vibration is audible. As this machine comes closer, it becomes clear that it isn’t a normal tractor: Its front and back are equipped with several high-tech, exotic-looking attachments. That vibration sound is not merely the engine, but something else is at work.
Hyper Care for Healthy Crops
Inside the machine sits agronomist Randall Hess. He casts some light on this mysterious device: “This is not a standard farm tractor. It’s called a PhenoTracker, and with it I’ve got an experimental field station.” Hess and other agronomists like him are researchers in the field of crop efficiency, an entirely new study area focused on yield formation. With the primary intention of increasing yields and contributing to food security, crop efficiency research has three major goals: optimizing the genetic potential of plants, reducing the impact of adverse weather on them, and improving their nutrient efficiency.
We test – with high resolution – crop efficiency solutions like high-performance wheat varieties, and we can test chemical or biological substances under field conditions.
A Lab in the Field
Sitting in his PhenoTracker, crop efficiency researcher Randall Hess continues: “Basically, I’m driving a mobile, on-field lab that is equipped with phenotyping technologies.” These technologies allow not only precise measurement of observable crop characteristics, such as height and canopy fraction; they can also be used to estimate physiological crop parameters such as chlorophyll or nitrogen content, leaf area index and biomass. “Also, we test – under high resolution – crop-efficiency prototypes, like high-performance wheat varieties, and we can test chemical or biological substances under field conditions,” Hess continues.
The attachments in the front and the back assist the PhenoTracker in examining wheat plants directly on the field. These attachments are, for instance, high resolution cameras, scanners and reflectance sensors. “The PhenoTracker can gather all of this information from one path in the field,“ Hess continues.
Sabin, Minnesota, USA
The example of the PhenoTracker demonstrates the high precision monitoring tools at work here, testing plants with a maximum of care – a term used in the agricultural community known as hyper care. The fields where these tools are operated are called Hypercare Farms. In addition to the one in Sabin, Minnesota, USA, Bayer established a Hypercare Farm in France. In 2016, additional Hypercare Farms are scheduled to open in Germany, Canada, and the United States. At these locations, Bayer carefully tests its crop efficiency products and seeks to systematically optimize crop yield potential.
Bayer’s Wheat Breeding Stations
Greta De Both, Crop Efficiency Manager for Global Breeding & Trait Development at Bayer, explains the purpose of the Hypercare Farm: “On these experimental fields, our scientists can determine how the insertion of a gene into a wheat line, or the application of a chemical or biological treatment, changes the wheat variety’s phenotypes. These new characteristics, such as reflectance levels, cannot visually be detected,” she says. “Via high-precision monitoring, however, scientists can identify which crop efficiency products positively impact the test plants. Ultimately, this testing can lead to improved wheat varieties and higher yields,” she adds.
Digital farming and crop efficiency techniques such as Bayer Hypercare methods will become more and more significant in the future: While the world population is growing rapidly, farmers have to cope with increasingly frequent extreme weather conditions and declining arable land. Hence, farmers need to produce more crops on less farmland in order to secure the global food supply. “That is why our scientists are working to obtain maximum performance from arable crops such as wheat,” De Both points out.
Looking around in the field, it becomes clear that the PhenoTracker is not the only tool that makes this place special. In the middle of the field, a mast rises 15 meters in the air – this is called a PhenoTower. The top of the tower is equipped with two cameras. An infrared camera is used to measure the canopy temperature of the plot. Randall Hess explains this high-precision tool: “Every 15 minutes this camera takes a picture of all the plants underneath it and documents the temperature. Just like a thermometer, this reading indicates under what conditions the plants feel stress. This camera itself can cover a range of up to five hectares,” he says. “And whenever a question arises from the thermal images,” Hess adds,“ a second, standard camera takes regular photographic images to provide information on the operation of the whole camera system.”
High-Tech Field Examination
By using tablets, scientists also apply high tech to capture images of plots and to collect detailed field data – from the time the plants first emerge through harvest time. Bayer’s agronomists correlate the measurements and analyze the data in close consultation with researchers. Via interpretation of this data, a research team can draw conclusions concerning the effects of the applied technology on establishment, vigor, health status, maturity and yield of the crop. “This information is used to determine which approaches are successful in producing the desired results – and when this happens, these products are advanced for further testing and development,” explains Randall Hess.
Only if our crops deliver top performance will the overall aim of feeding the world be reached.
Using high-precision monitoring tools such as PhenoTrackers and PhenoTowers at Bayer’s Hypercare Farms, combined with physiological and biochemical expertise, Bayer experts are counteracting the demanding challenges facing global food security. Greta De Both concludes: “By treating our crops with special care and spotting early indicators that affect their health, we provide the basis for their healthy development. Only if they deliver top performance will the overall aim of feeding the world be reached.”
Digital farming is comprised of the act of connecting and gathering field data information on crop conditions by using digital instruments such as sensors and satellites. This technological advancement offers farmers faster and more precise ways of crop monitoring and decision-making. Precise and real-time crop monitoring data and soil health analyses are examples that can simplify their decision-making process. Farmers have the possibility to assess the upcoming harvest’s yield, manage a variety of inputs and react to certain changes earlier, in order to prevent potential losses. These positive effects can result in more efficiency and increased yields that in turn may benefit a farmer’s financial situation. They also increase the sustainability of farming as well as global food security.