Technology Grows Efficiency and Sustainability on the Farm

In America’s Heartland, farmers raise No. 2 yellow dent corn in huge quantities. As stewards of the land, they understand how to get the most out of their farms and they know every square inch of their fields. For these farmers, their land is their asset to make money, and they are always looking for ideas that will help their land produce sustainably.

Like any business, farmers pay attention to trends and collect data. They use modern science and technology—and it has been helping them to increase the yield of each acre, preserve water, and enrich their soil, which allows them to reduce fertilizer use and increase the efficiency of their operations.

Technology in the Tractor

Using field-level data collection services, automated grain-bin monitoring systems, and digital hazard monitoring can give any operation a leg up when it comes to tracking the inputs and level of effort, and growers can have a better handle on what’s really going on in their fields. Perhaps best of all, systems can upload to web-based data platforms that show trends, analyze trouble spots, provide action steps to rectify problems as the growing season progresses.

This data serves an additional purpose too, as the recording of field-by-field results provides the farmer with a trackable, verifiable sustainability score for the produce brought to market. When properly tracked, audited, and verified by Gevo subsidiary Verity, the corn crop becomes a feedstock with built-in premium sustainability value, thanks to the the use of regenerative agriculture methods, including reduced tillage, integrated livestock management, use of cover crops, composting, and crop rotation, the carbon sequestered in the soil by the corn and additional benefits, which can then be passed on to the end users of products such as sustainable aviation fuel, additional bio-based renewable hydrocarbons, and also renewable chemicals that are components in the production of a host of consumer and industrial products.

Celestial Navigation Across Waves of Grain

Farmers use satellite guidance systems that allow their tractors and harvesters to optimize the land they farm. By programming their tractors and harvesters with GPS-controlled precision, farmers make the most of the geometry and topography of their fields, and have a deep understanding of their drainage, wind, and sun exposure, and more. That means that today, many farms have different land inputs on every square foot of field, only adding just the right amount of fertilizer or pesticide for that specific location in their fields. This will continue to increase in importance as more targeted agriculture methods and solutions are delivered by technology in a future that may be nearer than many of us think.

Farmers review satellite imagery to look at their fields and the detail lets them identify problem areas in fields where there may be insects, or drainage problems, or other factors that may have an adverse effect on the health of plants. With sophisticated systems for fertilizer application, pesticide delivery, and water management, targeted treatments can be delivered to the specific target area, improving efficiency and reducing chemical use, labor, and cost.

The Organic Technology of Soil

Because the soil is a key factor in their success each year, good farmers work to preserve and replenish their soil, and build up this rich combination of minerals, microbes, and organic matter, replenishing it with proven methods, refined and upgraded season after season. Gevo’s partner farmers use no-till or low-till techniques. Using strip-tilling, this method tills a narrow strip of soil, four inches wide, where the seeds are planted and the fertilizer is applied only in this specific location so it can aid in the early growth of foliage and roots following seed germination.

Because strip-tilling is precision guided by farm equipment with satellite navigation, the strips can be placed between the rows of last year’s crops, leaving the existing root structure to hold the soil together as it decays. This additional organic matter feeds soil microbes and represents amplified sequestered carbon, drawn down from the atmospheric carbon pools. Measuring this carbon sequestration is part of the equation of reducing the carbon intensity of every gallon of fuel. Increasing carbon in the soil helps to offset the impact of fossil fuels, but also increases feed- and food-production capabilities for the growing global population.

Drain Tiles and Water Flow

As rainwater flows in spring, it can rob the topsoil from corn fields, and can take valuable nutrients with it, while also making early-season fieldwork challenging. Many farmers employ drain tiles to control drainage. Water control systems can be added to let them preserve water for later in the season, when soil moisture on its own can’t keep up with crop water demand. Water control structures stem the flow in drain tiles by raising the level of water retained. Using these devices, farmers can set the water levels they want, allowing more drainage early in the season to allow field work while keeping soil from eroding. Then, farmers can raise the water level, using the drain-tile system to hold more water in the field soil, preventing nutrient losses.

Engineered water control systems show improved yield that can help defray the cost of the system installation in as little as two years, while reducing yield losses from farms that have extended periods where fields are too wet or too dry in the growing cycle.

Technology Increases Farm Efficiency

Don’t forget about economic sustainability. Fertilizer is expensive for farmers to buy and apply to their fields. Purchasing the nutrients and employing the labor and equipment to spread them is a pricey proposition, and over thousands of acres, it adds up. By leaving the organic matter from last year’s corn and diverse cover crops in the soil, that field also preserves nutrients from last year, held in the root and stalk of the corn left in the field after harvest and with cover crops, as well as the microbial biomass represented as soil organic matter that holds more water, more nutrients and aerates the soil. This complex ecosystem of nutrient-rich soil will help next season’s plants grow, and require less applied fertilizer to support this increased productivity. Most of the biomass used to produce Gevo’s advanced fuels comes from sources that use regenerative farming techniques that build soil organic carbon.

Argonne GREET Is the Key to Farm Efficiency

We believe Argonne GREET® (Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Technologies), developed by Argonne National Laboratory (Argonne) with the support of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), is superior to any other LCA tool available. Argonne National laboratories has been working on LCA since 1995 and has been cooperating with several federal agencies including the U.S. Department of Agriculture since 2014 to incorporate soil carbon. They update their models and stay current with the science. By employing rigorous scientific research and incorporating new developments and ideas, an accurate model for carbon intensity can be created and remove outdated boilerplate assumptions. This allows Argonne GREET to accurately account for the entire lifecycle. It also introduces the necessary ability to adapt to new developments and technological advances, making it the only model that can lead to every player in the lifecycle being appropriately compensated.