For as long as people have coaxed a plant from a seed, the most successful farmers have been “well grounded” in knowledge of their fields.
But what grandpa might have learned from long experience, the new generation of farmers can discover from computerized maps generated by equipment manufactured in Salina.
The high-tech look at a field’s soil composition provided by one-of-a-kind GPS-connected, soil-sensing equipment produced by Veris Technologies, 1925 Clay Ridge, can give growers a multicolored picture of their land’s crop-producing capabilities and where fertilizer or other inputs could be beneficial, company president Eric Lund said.
“It’s like an MRI on wheels,” Lund said. “It’s a high-tech tool that uses ground-engaging equipment to get readings.”
So far, Lund said, the 12 employees at Veris have built and sold equipment that is being used in 43 states, seven Canadian provinces and 40 other countries. Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Russia and the Ukraine account for a majority of sales outside the United States, but Veris sensors are also mapping fields in Serbia, Paraguay and the Dominican Republic.
“It’s kind of neat to see the excitement around the world that’s been generated by these tools,” said Tyler Lund, director of sales and marketing. “Our on-the-go soil-sensing equipment shows the major physical, biological and chemical properties of the soil, as well as slope and curvature of the field.”
Eric Lund said the equipment is sensitive computer technology that is pulled through the soil, so it has to withstand field conditions.
“There are people in Kansas who understand both of those worlds,” he said.
Lund said the computerized soil maps help farmers pinpoint management zones within a field so they can fully utilize the variable-rate planting and fertilizing capabilities of newer farm equipment.
The result is nitrogen being applied only where it is needed and in the correct amount, he said. That reduces waste, cost and the potential for crop damage. It also prevents production of a greenhouse gas or contamination of groundwater from nitrogen runoff, he said.
Also, seeds bred for specific soil types can be utilized more efficiently, and fertile areas can be seeded more heavily, Eric Lund said.
“What you’re going for is higher use efficiency,” he said.
Eric Lund said typically it’s younger farm workers who are attracted to the technology of the soil sensors, but older farmers are persuaded when they see the maps generated from the data and recognize the accuracy based on their experiences in the field.
“Sometimes dad or grandpa looks at a map and says, ‘Oh, that’s a great map — that nailed it,’ ” he said. “They relate more to the map than the younger guys because they know the field better.”
As farms get larger and a younger generation takes over operation of the planters and fertilizer spreaders, that kind of “precision agriculture” information can have an effect on profits and help to avoid unnecessary costs, Eric Lund said. The maps sometimes reveal correctible deficiencies that even longtime farmers hadn’t caught, he said.
“It used to be a farmer working 80 acres he knew well,” Eric Lund said. “Now it’s guys farming 5,000 acres they don’t know. They definitely need technology to tell them what’s where.”
Getting at the ‘why’
Veris’ soil texture and organic matter sensors penetrate 1 to 2 inches into the soil to take a reading every second. A reading of the soil’s pH balance is taken every 90 feet. Readings are taken in rows spaced 60 feet apart until the entire field is covered.
“Our advantage is we’re in the soil,” said Chase Maxton, electrical engineer for Veris. “That’s what matters. The soil tells you why, whether it’s low organic matter, a deficiency of nitrogen or an area that’s drowned out. We try to get at the why.”
At a recent open house at Veris’ new headquarters, Maxton pointed out features of a map generated with multiple types of sensors to Zach Grothusen, 29, who farms 2,500 acres near Ellsworth.
Grothusen was interested in finding out how the Veris software would interface with the computer in his tractor. Grothusen said margins are always getting tighter.
“The equipment’s gotten so much more expensive, we’ve got to be smarter now with the dollars we spend to get a return on those dollars,” he said. He said crop production per acre has increased significantly, and it’s “stuff like this that makes it possible.”
“The older generation bristles at new technology, and my generation is maybe a little too eager,” Grothusen said.
Unique in industry
So far, fertilizer and seed dealers who want to provide the mapping service to their customers have accounted for most of Veris’ sensor technology sales, Tyler Lund said.
The equipment ranges in price from $12,000 to $36,000, he said.
Paul Drummond, director of operations, said each piece of equipment sold represents thousands of acres being mapped each year.
“Our knowledge of sensors, ag equipment and soils gives us the ability to offer these products to our customers,” he said. “That’s what makes Veris unique in the ag industry.”
Natural processes over thousands of years deposited the sand, silt and clay that are a major factor in crop yields. Once electrical conductivity sensors determine the textures of the soil throughout a field, it won’t need to be mapped again, Eric Lund said. He said the Salina area is a prehistoric lake bed that has been covered over the centuries by wind-blown soil.
Also, the levels of organic matter won’t change significantly, even where conservation-minded farming practices such as no-till are utilized, he said.
Soil texture and organic matter levels are key elements in making decisions about where and how much nitrogen to apply, he said.
Every three to five years, a farmer might want to recheck the acidity or alkalinity of the soil because pH balance may vary, and it affects a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients, he said.
Putting it together
Eric Lund said Veris Technologies began producing machinery in 1997 that could sense soil textures and map it using GPS technology. He said the sensing probe technology had been developed by Geoprobe Systems, a sister company located nearby at 1835 Wall, but Veris developed a way to apply the probe sensor to an agricultural use.
In 2003, the company began offering sensors that could determine pH balance throughout a field, and in 2010 a sensor that determined the level of organic matter present was introduced. The MSP3, a piece of equipment that utilizes all three sensors, came on the market in 2011.
Eric Lund said satellite imagery of crops growing can provide complementary information, and the images “quite often” coincide with Veris’ soil maps.
He said it’s interesting when the areas on the maps that should be the most fertile do not correlate with the areas of best production captured in satellite images. When that happens, he said, a farmer can visit that part of the field to look for a cause, such as compaction, fungus or an insect infestation, and take steps to correct the problem.
“When water is limited, and it usually is, the better soil makes nice, dark green areas (on satellite photos),” he said.
More recently, Lund said, Veris has begun offering services to help farmers analyze the maps generated and determine appropriate management practices for different areas of their fields.
“We’re continuing to evolve and grow the market,” he said. “It takes some time to convince people this equipment is viable, helpful and profitable.”