Excessive nutrient loading in the Mississippi River and its tributaries has contributed to a massive, annually-occurring “dead-zone” in the Gulf of Mexico – an area where water-borne nitrogen and phosphorous levels are so high, fish cannot live.
In an effort to reduce the American Corn Belt’s nitrogen contribution to the dead-zone problem, agricultural tech company Stable’N – and its new, Indiana-based owner Little Engine Ventures – is trying to utilise high-voltage electricity to make the nutrient more static in soil. Specifically, they’ve developed an electrical system that, when retrofitted to the main toolbar of an existing piece of equipment, eliminates nitrogen-consuming bacteria where fertiliser is applied.
By temporarily preventing nitrogen from being broken down by bacteria in the nitrogen cycle, so the idea goes, farmers can simultaneously give their crops more time to absorb the nutrient, while reducing nutrient leaching. “Two coulters are set thee inches apart. As they cut through the soil a charge is applied to one, which shoots through the 3-inch band,” says Bill Goss, chief executive officer of Stable’N. “This treatment is applied right before nitrogen and disrupts the bacteria’s cell membrane […] It’s supposed to help farmers get more bushels out of each pound.”
The charge emitted between the system’s coulters reaches a depth of 5 to 7 inches. Because the electric charge is set in such a narrow area, though, Mr Goss says it’s important to recognise the whole field is not being sterilised. Indeed, he describes the effect as equivalent to traditional chemical nitrogen stabilisers, with normal bacteria counts bouncing back in about 5 weeks. Mr Goss also says that, because the technology can be adapted to any existing toolbar, very little additional horsepower is required. Fewer passes and lighter loads also means less fuel consumption – something which he says brings both environmental and economic befits.
The Stabl’N team’s electrified coulter system is not available to farmers yet, however. With the technology now in the field-test phase, Mr Goss says they hope to determine pricing details this spring, then start showcasing the system at farm shows later in 2018. “This is really the first time we’ve been able to do this in row crops,” says Mr Goss. “We’ve done the beta-testing and know it works. We just need to make sure.”