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  • Writer's picturePrecision Ag Reviews

Podcast: 06. John Fulton - On-The-Go Manure Sensors

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

Is pulling a pit sample a fair representation of your manure application? With the help of near infrared sensors, you can now monitor exactly what is being put on our field (both volume and nutrient make-up) and map what you are measuring.

Sensors are becoming very popular as a way to monitor and measure what is going into your field. Using Near Infrared Sensors to try to understand the value of manure vs inorganics is something that John and his colleagues are working on. These monitors can be used for any type of application but much of their energy has been focused on in-season or side-dress applications of liquid manure.

Tracking not only the output but also the make-up of that output is the first step in enhancing in season manure applications. John’s research then takes it a step further to understand dynamics, power requirements, and torque, as a way to understand the machine’s complete process in conjunction with the manure sensing. From there, his team can work to build the proper analytical pieces to incorporate the sensing mechanism into autonomous solutions.

“When we want to automate equipment, the important thing about that is you have to have the right feedback for the robots to work properly,” said John. “Our real interest is starting to marry machinery requirements to sensors and being able to build analytical pieces that clip on to essentially the autonomous solutions out there.”

Whether it is man-operated or automated, knowing the values from the sensor allows the user to change applications on-the-go as that information is coming in. This could be in a variable rate map or with a programmed flat rate. It would read the nutrient make-up and change the output on-the-go to make a consistent rate.

If you’re interested in learning more about John’s research you can visit their digital ag website. Make sure you tune into our next interview with Glen Arnold to learn more about the in-season application of manure.

Have you used manure sensors? Leave a review here.



Host: Morgan Seger

Guest: John Fulton, Ph.D. Professor at The Ohio State University

Morgan Seger (00:22):

Welcome back to Precision Points: An Ag Tech Podcast from Precision Ag Reviews. I'm your host, Morgan Seger, and on every episode, we strive to bring you unbiased precision ag information and ideas. On today's episode, I am joined again by Dr. John Fulton from the Ohio State University.

Morgan Seger (00:38):

Now, today we're actually going to get to dive into some of the things that he and his students are working on. Like we've mentioned before with this podcast, we want to keep the information as relevant as possible when we roll it out. With this being an in-season episode, we focused on his on-the-go manure sensors that are used for making in-season applications of manure. He talks about the benefits of monitoring the output from your machine with these sensors and also some of the things that we could be using these sensors for in the future. I hope you enjoy this episode.

Morgan Seger (01:12):

Welcome back to Precision Points. Today, I'm sitting down with Dr. John Fulton again. John, welcome back to the show.

John Fulton (01:22):

Yeah, thanks. It's a pleasure to be back.

Morgan Seger (01:23):

Last time we were talking, we just talked [about] some general trends in precision ag. But through our conversations, you let me know that you were working on an on-the-go manure sensor. With this podcast, we're really trying to keep the content relevant to each growing season. Since we're releasing this in-season, this topic really seemed to fit. Could you explain to us a little bit about what this is and what you guys are trying to accomplish?

John Fulton (01:50):

Yeah. When we look at what's happening in precision ag, sensors are becoming very popular. Whether it's on the machine [or] in the field, there's a lot of sensors coming where we install them in the field to give feedback. Most all these sensors are connected to the internet. One area that we're starting to see is for nutrient management, (both on dry fertilizers) being able to measure how much fertilizer is being applied( either on a strip till unit). We've been doing some development work on that: to liquid manure, being able to measure the nutrient concentration on-the-go. That premise behind that would be is, as you apply manure, you want to know exactly what you're applying and how much. The sensors, in terms of the manure industry sensors that've been developed, a lot of work has been done in Europe and where these are very applicable, not only to know exactly what's applied but for the record keeping requirements over there as well. Now, we're seeing these companies bring these sensors to [the] U.S. and commercialize fairly early. I need to calibrate it, but it's exciting to see that some of this is being done in Ohio as well.

Morgan Seger (03:17):

Would this be primarily for side dressing with liquid manure or would it be for any application?

John Fulton (03:25):

Primarily, these sensors are near-infrared or NIR type sensors that are being applied. It could be used... That's how we're using them today is for side dressing this year. And working with Glen Arnold and Sam Custer on our side, trying to understand the value of manure versus inorganics for side dressing. In our case, working with companies and using inside dress. But, it's for any liquid applicator, whether it's a tank or an injection system or in our case for a site and dress; it's typically a hose line that has an injection tool to inject the manure in. But, any kind of liquid these sensors can work on.

Morgan Seger (04:10):

Okay. For me, never having much experience with manure applications, what would the alternative to this look like? How are people measuring it if they aren't using these sensors?

John Fulton (04:22):

Today, quite simply, what you normally do is you go to the pit where the manure's stored, and prior to application, you would pull a sample, run an analysis on that sample, and you would know what the nitrogen and phosphorus and potassium and possibly other micronutrients concentration is in that. And then based on that in conjunction (with going out and doing soil tests in the field), then you would match basically a gallons per minute, gallons per hour, typically gallons per minute, gallons per acre will get it converted to what you apply out in the field to match what you can apply. You take one sample out of the pit that's basically blanketed for the entire application. If I apply to a 50 acre field, I'm using that one sample to inform that complete... that total application.

Morgan Seger (05:17):

Okay. Again, unfamiliar with this, I would assume though, that that pit is not necessarily uniform. How do they get a representative sample out of that?

John Fulton (05:27):

A lot of times there'll be a little bit of mixing, but typically they don't want to mix up too much custom applicators. But if there was a change in a nutrient concentration, the sensor would automatically, in the cab, or if I'm watching it remotely through an app, if it's tied to the internet, I could note that today that, "Hey, my nitrogen has gone up, or my nitrogen has gone down." And the same thing for my phosphorus and potassium. The unique thing, Morgan, what we're really interested in is we think the sensors have a lot of application to do that. Just knowing what you put on the field, you can create a map from that because I got the GPS on the tractor, so I can make a coverage map to exactly know my nitrate, potentially ammonia, my phosphate, and then my potassium. And again, some of these have... You can do solid concentrations, so you know what percent solids was applied, but you get maps of each one of those across the field.

John Fulton (06:34):

Our interest is really into thinking of downstream here is we get into automation. We give to robots. We talked a little bit about that in our earlier episode. When we want to automate equipment, the important thing about that is you have to have the right feedback for the robots to work properly. Our real interest is starting to marry machinery requirements to sensors and being able to build analytical pieces that clip on to essentially the autonomous solutions out there. And that's what our real interest understanding whether it's a side dress or a fall spring application, we're trying. We're not only collecting what the sensor's doing, but we're also collecting information from the machine, typically the tractor. Understanding dynamics, power requirements, torque, a lot of things dynamically from that machine, and understanding that complete process in conjunction with the manure sensing, we can then build the proper analytical pieces and the proper sensing mechanism into the autonomous solutions when we go to that step. That's our real interest in all of this.

Morgan Seger (07:47):

Okay. Then would that look... The sensors are reading the output; it would communicate in the cab and would, whatever's going on in the cab whether it's a robot or a human, be able to make changes on the go in response to what they're seeing?

John Fulton (08:04):

True. Yeah. Two things potentially. If I made... Typically when I'm pumping manure, we're at constant volume of material coming out to the applicator. These systems today that are being built, John Deere would be an example, Top Comma being an example...For the case of John Deere, you can actually speed... Automatically, it'll speed up the tractor or slow down the tractor based on the concentration to maintain. hey, I can only put X amount out. I'm going to make sure that the speed of the tractor matches, so X is being put across the entire field uniformly at that concentration. The next step, two, is if I want to do a variable rate application. So, say I have a field that I have a variable rate map where I soil tested in that manner. And maybe, I want to put more nitrogen and phosphorus over here versus over here. then in order for that tractor or that machine to accommodate that, it either slows up or again, speeds up, or we may start to see solutions that controls the amount of material coming out the hose in this case or being applied by the machine.

John Fulton (09:18):

We can either do a variable rate application and match that material to that prescription. Or secondly, we can just say, hey, I need this much nitrogen or this much phosphorus; put on that's allowable in this field and, the machine accommodates and make sure that's uniform, if we saw a variation in the pit.

Morgan Seger (09:38):

okay. Is side dressing with manure a very common practice? Or how have you guys been able to go about getting and quantifying your research?

John Fulton (09:50):

Yeah so, Glen Arnold and Sam Custer have been at this for several years and have really good data where they've done several farms and done research to understand the value of manure versus maybe an inorganic like a 28%, if I'd ever replaced it. And they have found that manure... There was actually a yield advantage and a real value to manure in some cases. They've got some really good data that suggests side dressing manure is fairly new. Typically, we think about a manure application of being out of the growing season, whether that's a fall or spring. But, we're starting to see, especially with environmental concerns where we're trying to put fertilizers on more in season to give those plants time to take that up, and so we don't see that potential loss of nutrients either through tile or overland. It's fairly new, and it seems to be growing in interest because I know feedback from Glen and Sam have been more people are asking about it; they're seeing some value for corn, application and corn. We may see it done more often and more frequently in the future.

Morgan Seger (11:13):

Sure. Well, being over here in Western Ohio, there's still quite a bit of livestock, so I can definitely see... It seems just kind of tricky, like how do you do it without going over your crop or causing damage to your crop? But if we're able to figure out logistically how to make this work, I could definitely see it being a big value.

John Fulton (11:35):

Yeah. One thing Glen figured out, and they've done tremendous amount[s] of research around this, for corn you can run over with a hose through V4 of corn and not have a yield penalty. Excuse me. Up through V4, a drag hose is a viable option, without having a yield penalty of pulling that hose over that corn. But after V5 or post, there's a good potential of impact in that corn and actually having a decrease in yield.

Morgan Seger (12:08):

Yeah. That's interesting. I think a lot of us try to have our corn side... We say we want to wait as late as possible, but as soon as we can row it, generally, we start side dressing anyway.

John Fulton (12:20):

Yeah. But with manure, it's a small window, you basically V2 to V4. It does create a lot of pressure, especially as we see springs like this again, and we get quite a bit of rain. It's a pretty narrow window to hit. Mother nature has to be on our side to make it work.

Morgan Seger (12:43):

Yeah. For sure. Well, if anyone listening wants to learn more, follow some of the research and things you're trying, where would you suggest they go?

John Fulton (12:52):

They can go to our digital ag website, quick Ohio state digital ag should get you right to our website,if you really want to see some of that research specifically to the manure or eFields. Again, if you put in Ohio state eFields, we have an eFields website; that's what is basically a culmination of work studies that we do each and every year into a book. Then they can go to that website and see it electronic[ally]. Or if they reach out to [the] digital ag team, we can be more than happy to send a hard copy of that book to them to review our research results.

Morgan Seger (13:28):

Awesome. That's great. And we'll link out to it in the show notes too. If anyone needs the exact links, we'll go ahead and link out to them. Well, thank you so much for spending time with me. I know in our first episode, we talked a lot about how precision ag is turning to digital ag, and it's a lot about data and analytics. So, I definitely think we're going to have more to talk about, and I appreciate you taking the time today.

John Fulton (13:51):

Yeah. Thanks, Morgan.

Morgan Seger (13:51):

Thank you.


Host: Morgan Seger

Morgan Seger spent ten years working with ag retail, specifically in ag tech. She lives and farms in western Ohio, where she has four children with her husband Ben. Morgan, has her own blog called Heart and Soil where she talks about her experience farming, gardening, and raising her family.


Guest: Dr. John Fulton

John is a Professor in the Food, Agriculture and Biological Engineering Department at the Ohio State University. His research and extension focuses on precision agriculture, machinery automation and use of spatial data to improve crop production and the farm business.

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