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Sustainable Agriculture: Remote Sensing for Optimum Nitrogen Use
| February 2, 2022 |

Most of us understand the importance of adopting sustainable agricultural practices when possible. From fires to floods, the weather has rised in severity and unpredictability due to climate change. This has made it significantly harder for growers to have consistently maximize yields.

And it’s estimated that, by 2050, we’ll have 9 billion people on Earth, necessitating a 70% increase in food production. That means more land, water, and resources of all kinds will be required for growth.  The result? A growing push to prioritize sustainability in agriculture with every season.

When you take agriculture and climate change together, it’s understandable if this seems a bit overwhelming. However, although there’s much to be done, we have incredible agriscience technology available to us. This technology allows us to precisely track not only the health and growth of our crops but also the impact those crops have on the land and the environment. 

One exciting way technology makes a positive difference in the battle against climate change is through remote sensing. This can detect and forecast nitrogen demand, providing growers with a field-level nutrient and nitrogen prescription.


Why Precise Nitrogen Use Matters

Nitrogen needs can vary across fields and landscapes. So historically, growers have used a single, uniform nitrogen application over the whole field – and even the entire farm. 

That is problematic for a few reasons; frankly, we can do much better.

Nitrogen is an enormous cost for growers – but using the right amount isn’t just about saving money. Applying this fertilizer appropriately also impacts plant health, yield, and the environment. And that enables accurate nitrogen demand forecasting, modifying plant health, and promptly making necessary adjustments important on every level.

One of the key tenets of sustainable agriculture focuses on the land itself. How do current farming practices impact the soil productivity, and how do the fertilizers used affect nearby water sources? When it comes to nitrogen, we know that excessive use of nitrogen leads to negative effects on the environment, like, leaching and denitrification, and, because over-application doesn’t actually benefit plant growth, it hurts the grower’s bottom line. 

In fact, it goes a step further. Excessive application not only doesn’t help plants grow, but can actually cause “luxuriant growth,” which leaves the plant more susceptible to disease. And even if that doesn’t occur, an overabundance of nitrogen being applied can result in a reduction of plant strength, which can lead to plant lodging in moderate wind conditions.

Clearly, determining the optimum amount of nitrogen to use benefits everyone. The plant grows properly, the grower doesn’t waste money on fertilizer they don’t need, and the surrounding land isn’t negatively impacted by nitrogen run-off, leaving it in better shape for future growing seasons.


What Remote Sensing for Nitrogen Use Looks Like in the Field

Just as agronomic advisors are able to collect data from aerial imagery using drones and satellites to gain insights on things like field condition, crop health, and stand count, these same tools can also be used to collect data on a crop’s fertilizer needs. 

Nitrogen stress, in general, can be detected pretty easily in aerial images, since the shortage of chlorophyll and other light-absorbing pigments it causes leads to an increase in canopy reflectance. This is the case for all visible wavelengths, and may also be true in near-infrared wavelengths. 

In the last couple of decades, this technology has leveled up. Multispectral, hyperspectral, and thermal aerial imagery all help to detect a crop’s nitrogen needs. Drones and satellite imagery are used to detect and monitor these readings – being further leveraged with complementary sensors. Then, precision ag software analyzes the data in near-real time. Allowing growers and agronomic advisors to quickly and accurately diagnose nutrient deficiencies and determine the precise amount of nitrogen needed. 

From saving money to improving crop performance to doing the right thing for the planet at large, using remote sensing to more precisely apply fertilizer is a step toward sustainable, efficient agriculture that truly benefits everyone.


Learn more about the value of ag drones and sensors, and how to use the data they collect, in our '23 Ag Drone & Sensors Buyer's Guide.
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