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Nitrogen, clover, camera and image analysis all come together

New technology that combines cameras, sensors, computers and smartphones aims to increase productivity and may help reduce nitrogen fertilisation in clover-grass fields.

[Translate to English:] Det er vigtigt at tildele den mængde gødning, der sikrer et optimalt forhold mellem kløver og græs. Foto: Janne Hansen

What do grass, clover and nitrogen have to do with image analysis and smartphones? The answer is that technology has found its way to clover grass fields and can help improve profitability and the environment. 

Scientists from Aarhus University are collaborating with private companies in a new research project in order to develop and apply technical equipment, using cameras, sensors, algorithms, web platforms and smartphones, – that can support the farmer in optimising nitrogen fertilization of his clover-grass fields. This new technology can help the agricultural sector save approx. 96 mill DKK a year in addition to reducing the environmental and climate impact. 

The three-year CloverSense project has been granted 10.9 mill DKK by the Green Development and Demonstration Programme (GUDP). The project is a collaboration between scientists from Aarhus University and the private companies AgroIntelli and I-GIS. 

Finding the balance

Clover grass is an important feed source in conventional as well as organic farming. Denmark comprises about 230,000 hectares of clover-grass. In order for this area to grow satisfactorily and to produce high-quality feed, an appropriate amount of nutrients must be applied to the fields. 

When it comes to procuring nitrogen, clover is self-reliant. Grass, however, needs nitrogen fertilisation. It can be quite a balancing act for the farmer to apply the optimum amount of nitrogen to a clover-grass field for the grass to grow sufficiently without outperforming the nitrogen-fixating clover. In addition, clover is an important crop protein source.  

- The farmer applies nitrogen to the field based on an application scheme made the year before.. This method is in stark contrast to the differentiated nitrogen application needed in order to optimize nitrogen utilization, explains the manager of CloverSense, Associate Professor René Gislum, Department of Agroecology, Aarhus University. 

A combination of several technologies

CloverSense customizes existing technologies and uses them to determine the ration between clover and grass. In addition, the project partners will develop algorithms for nitrogen fertilisation that build on the ratio between clover and grass to develop fertilizer maps. This will enable the farmer to improve nitrogen utilisation, improve clover grass yields and reduce nitrogen application. 

The project partners will develop three commercial products: a camera system, a web platform and a programme for smart phones. 

CloverSenseCam is a camera system that includes sensors. The system is mounted on the grass mower and collects high resolution photos at speeds of up to 25 km/h. The project partners plan to further develop the camera system, thus allowing its use in other areas such as e.g. row management, weed recognition and plant fitness estimation.Image analysis is used to develop an algorithm that can determine the clover:grass ratio as well as the amount of nitrogen to be applied. Next, the photos and algorithms are compared and the results communicated to the farmer in the form of clover-grass maps and differentiated fertiliser maps. This takes place within the framework of the web platform CloverSenseWeb. 

The third product is the smart phone programme CloverSenseApp. This programme provides the farmer and extension service with an objective estimate of the clover:grass ratio directly from the field and thus helps optimise nitrogen fertilisation. 

Practical application

The project partners will build on a technology that is based on results from previous research projects at Aarhus University. 

- We expect that the system will result in a more efficient utilisation of nitrogen and provide agriculture with increased excess profits amounting to 48 mill DKK the first year, and about 96 mill DKK in subsequent years. In addition, nitrogen leaching and climate impact will be significantly reduced, says René Gislum. 

The collaboration partners include Aarhus University (Department of Agroecology and Department of Engineering) and the private companies AgroIntelli and I-GIS. DLF Seeds & Science will provide trial fields and help communicate the results to the agricultural sector.   

For more information please contact:

Associate Professor René Gislum, Department of Agroecology, e-mail: rg@agro.au.dk, telephone: +458715 8279, mobile: +45 2054 2092