We dig into the first-ever Climate Corp. research program to see what may be coming next. And we share insight from Monsanto.
Developing new products for a market takes time, and in the case of new technology, that process can be quite complicated. Crop protection and biotech companies have been more forthcoming in recent years sharing what’s headed your way, sometimes as much as 5 or 8 years down the road.
Climate Corp., owned by Monsanto, joined the pipeline announcement approach and shared with media what’s coming your way soon, in addition the firm offered insight into ideas that are coming in future years. It’s an interesting look at where tech is heading for agriculture.
“The mission of Climate Corp. is to help all farmers through digital tools,” said Mike Stern, chief executive officer, The Climate Corporation. He points to the difference between record corn yields and the average yield as noted by USDA. “We want to begin to address that variability and capture some of that value.”
As a data-driven company it’s only fair that Stern would represent agriculture in a math formula where yield (Y) comes as a function (f) of genetics (g), environment (e) and farming practices (p) plus variability (E)- or Y=f(g,e,p)+E. The key is to reduce that variability, he notes and part of that comes through digitization of the farm.
“We’re working to help growers bring relevant data together and to visualize that information and analyze it to improve what’s going on out in the field,” Stern said. From the start Climate Corp. has been working on ways to take a lot of data, bring machine learning and analytics to the process to the create better insights for farmers.
The original approach was to model a crop, and the company is already doing that with nitrogen use, for example. Yet that’s just the beginning, during the conversation with media, Stern and Sam Eathington, chief scientist, Climate Corp., dug deeper and talked more about the R&D pipeline.
Heading to market
Eathington shared insight into some key products that are coming to market soon – some in 2017 and some soon after. What follows is a look at a few tools in detail and some insight into what this tech could mean for farmers who sign up for the program. Eathington notes that in a given season farmers make 40 key decisions and the work at Climate is to help make those decisions precise. “We have 35 products in the pipeline today and we see this as a way to help growers optimize decision making to get the most of every acre out there,” said.
First is seed and planting product selection, which aims to help farmers place the right seed in the right place for best performance. “This is an area of tremendous variability, which can result in farmers losing yield potential,” Eathington said.
He explained that the company has taking historical yield information and developed algorithms that can help farmers match seed to specific management zones. “We’re working to leverage the knowledge we already have,” he said. “We’re working to include information about which germplasm likes what kind of environment, seeding density and ways to specifically manage this in their field.”
Field zones, and seed density data use are still in what’s called the development stage, which means its two or three seasons from coming to market, while seed selection decision making is in the pre-commercial stage, and closer to market, though a firm timeframe was not announced.
In the area of crop fertility, Climate has had a nitrogen management tool that provides precise prescriptions for nitrogen use. This Sub-Field Nitrogen Monitoring tool helps farmers know just how much N a crop is using, and perhaps offer potential for in-season action. Now close to market – classed as ‘pre-commercial’ by Climate is the ability to add phosphorus and potassium management – which will allow growers to better use the ‘big three’ of crop nutrients.
“Crop fertility is one of the most expensive inputs today, and there are not a lot of great tools to manage that at a field level,” Eathington said. “Our new tool is pre-commercial but it will develop sophisticated P and K prescriptions integrated with nitrogen.” Pre-commercial means it is in limited test for 2017 and could be available soon after.
Last fall Climate Corp. did announce it was developing a sensor network that would provide new ways to get information and data layers to farmer fields. “We’ve opened up Climate as a platform in this situation and sensors from other third parties can provide information into our network,” Eathington said. “And you’ll have that information available in your FieldView account.
Looking farther ahead
During the presentation, Eathington and Stern, looked farther out and there are some industry firsts heading to market – especially in ways to fine-tune scouting and in-season disease mitigation.
The key area is disease vulnerability, directed scouting and even disease diagnosis. Disease vulnerability and identification are listed in the pre-commercial stage by Climate, which means the tech is close. “Certain things have to fall into place for disease management,” Eathington said. “First the germplasm has to be susceptible to the disease, then the pathogen must be present and the environment must be favorable.”
That creates a triangle and can be used as a tool for monitoring fields. “We want the decision on disease management to be proactive versus reactive, and this comes together in the advance scouting tool,” he said.
That tool, listed in the “development” stage would actually help a field scout choose the best places to scout in a field. Using the “disease triangle” the system would identify areas where disease may be more likely to break out.
But Climate goes one step further – but it’s still early in its development: Disease diagnosis. Still very early, but pulling together a wide range of sensor, weather, germplasm and pathogen data, the system may someday diagnose disease, or disease potential, so you would be confident of spraying when necessary.
And looking farther ahead? During the presentation Stern popped an extensive graphic on the screen with more than 35 projects in various stages of development from proof-of-concept (it’s an idea let’s see if it will work) to commercial (on the market). This deeper list showed some more interesting ideas that farmers will want to stay tuned for including yield productivity enhancement through benchmark analysis; scripting for sensors and imagery; seed portfolio optimization; and even a nitrate sensor.
Looking ahead at Climate Corp. offers interesting opportunities.
And what about Monsanto?
During the same media call, Robb Fraley, chief technology officer, looked at the Monsanto pipeline, but also dug into the pending Monsanto-Bayer merger offering some interesting insight as well. During the media briefing, Fraley shared that the core pipeline for Monsanto is expected to deliver $25 billion of peak net sales with increased value of new platforms.
He adds that the work in research has been balanced with more than 20 pipeline advancements occurring, which means tech like the RNAi trait for corn rootworm control, and other technologies are nearing the market, and are on schedule.
He noted that in product performance, the company is on track to increase the corn rate of genetic gain by 30%.
Monsanto’s work goes beyond seed and biotech, the company’s work with Novozymes as part of the BioAg Alliance has brought Acceleron B300 to market for 2017 and the company will launch seven new seed treatments through 2019, including NemaStrike Technology.
And the company announced five agreements in gene editing – a promising new technology for enhanced plant breeding. “There are a lot of different genetic editing tools coming to market, I even heard of two new ones last week,” Fraley commented. “This is an area that’s moving quickly and these tools let our scientists precisely change every base pair of every gene, which opens opportunities for next generation biotech tools.”
He adds that in many countries the tech is viewed differently from GMO technology with less regulation, oversight and some significant opportunities for smaller crops. “There are opportunities to accelerate crop improvements in many of the world’s crops,” Fraley added.
Top of mind for many is just how does a Monsanto-Bayer Future look? “The combination [of the two companies] will be more profitable and increase competition and choice for farmers,” he said.
He pointed to a key example – the integrated pipeline of the two companies with chemical and biotech development happening concurrently. “With herbicide tolerance this is important for farmers of major crops,” he said.
He notes that crop protection development takes an extensive period of time before a product comes to market. Add in development of the tolerant crop and if that’s done sequentially Fraley said that could take up to two decades. “If we work in parallel we can shorten that period and shave years off the development of a product,” Fraley said. “That’s great for farmers and important for the company to save some development time, and invest in other innovations for growers.”
The merger is still under regulatory review, but Fraley said he was optimistic about the future, with the new tech tools coming to market.