The millions of acres of corn grown in the United States depend on nitrogen-rich soil. Consequently, managing nitrogen is critical to corn crop production. If there is too little nitrogen, there is less crop yield, but if there is too much nitrogen, the excess washes away and pollutes the environment.
Many factors determine how much nitrogen a crop gets, and those change every year. Weather, for example, plays a large role in determining how much nitrogen is available in the soil. Warm weather allows for more nitrogen than cold weather, and high rainfall causes big losses.
Harold M. van Es, School of Integrative Plant Science, Soil and Crop Sciences, has spent the past 20 years doing field research and developing models for soil management. His decades of research are the foundation for a computational nitrogen management tool called Adapt-N. The technology now provides important recommendations to farmers.
“We realized that this area of research had a very large potential,” says van Es. “We saw it as a win-win opportunity. The way that nitrogen had been managed, and often still is managed, was inefficient and unsophisticated. We could save farmers money while also reducing the environmental impact. Millions of dollars are involved”
Adapt-N in the Making
Adapt-N originally emerged from van Es’ research lab in 2008 and was tested on New York and Iowa farms. In 2012 it won AgProfessional’s top new product of the year award. In 2013 a startup, Agronomic Technology Corporation, licensed Adapt-N. Soon after, the company raised more than $2 million to expand the platform. Agronomic Technology became one of the first startups to enter Cornell’s Kevin M. McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences and the first to graduate from the incubator in early 2015.
The makings of Adapt-N truly began when van Es received a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Special Grant on Computational Agriculture more than a dozen years ago. That initial grant fueled van Es’ research group. In collaboration with the Northeast Region Climate Center at Cornell, the researchers were able to develop complex models that account for crop growth, nitrogen uptake, soil processes, and high-resolution climate data.
At the core of Adapt-N is a Precision Nitrogen Management (PNM) model, which was developed by van Es and colleague Jeffrey Melkonian, Soil and Crop Sciences/Integrative Plant Science through more than 20 years of field research and lab and modeling work—and a whole lot of data. Their data accounted for details on soil characteristics and field slope, tillage, manure applications, fertilizer usage, rotations, and corn characteristics.
Climate researchers led by Arthur T. DeGaetano, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, developed methods to process large amounts of data from the Northeast Regional Climate Center, including detailed temperature and precipitation data and fed it into the PNM model to drive the Adapt-N system.
After developing the models, van Es’ group took the Adapt-N tool to the farms in 2011. The team tested Adapt-N on approximately 200 commercial farms in nine states, comparing farmers’ current nitrogen management processes to Adapt-N’s recommendations. They used those results to further improve and refine the model. With success in field trials, Adapt-N was ready for the next step.
“Adapt-N was a big idea and relatively ambitious and took a lot of people and years to develop,” says van Es.
Setting the Technology into Action
“We recognized that the technology would die on the vine if we kept it in the public domain,” says van Es. He considered the not-for-profit route, but after seeking advice from people such as Edward Heslop, Executive-in-Residence at the McGovern Center, he realized it would be difficult to get funding. “We were hitting barriers. For this tool to be widely adopted, it needed to be licensed and commercialized,” van Es says.
That’s when van Es, with the help of Cornell resources such as the Center for Technology Licensing, determined that commercializing Adapt-N to a company made the most sense. Or as he puts it, “We needed talented entrepreneurs and software engineers. But we couldn’t just simply license it and have any organization commercialize it. Most wouldn’t know how to improve the tool because of the kind of foundational science that went into it.”
As van Es sought an intimate relationship between his research team and a company, he found the partnership he was looking in Gregory I. Levow ’04, COO, and Steven J. Sibulkin, CEO, of Agronomic Technology Corporation. The company took Adapt-N and revamped the software, updating the interface and reporting tools, as well as bringing Adapt-N into the cloud. Today, the technology is mobile-friendly and syncs across devices, including smartphones and tablets, making it not only incredibly useful, but also user-friendly.
Future Research and Development
Agronomic Technology and the van Es lab maintain a close relationship, since there is more work to do in refining the models that power Adapt-N and in interacting with the many agricultural and environmental interest groups. The company will continue to sponsor research in the van Es lab. Also, van Es serves as a scientific adviser at the company.
The company is expanding the scope of the crops it covers to include wheat and is adding more advanced precision management features.
“I want to make sure it’s commercially viable, and the company is successful,” says van Es. “Adapt-N was a big idea and relatively ambitious and took a lot of people and years to develop. It’s wonderful to be in a situation where you have a win-win scenario and where you can save farmers money and reduce environmental impact. That will remain the focus.”