Assisted growth: resource management in crop cultivation

Steinbeis Transfer Center sets up ecological network

The systematic cultivation of crops began over 12,000 years ago, laying the foundations of agriculture – necessary to support growing populations. But it took another 7000 years before irrigation systems were developed in response to constant water shortages. Initial methods were primitive, albeit revolutionary for their time. By channeling water from distant sources, pumping it to higher ground and storing it there, agriculture could be developed on a larger scale. In many parts of the world, artificial irrigation is a prerequisite for crop cultivation, so it plays an essential role in feeding the world’s growing population. Even in Germany, many areas of agriculture would not be possible without artificial irrigation. The Müllheim-based Steinbeis Transfer Center for Identification Media & Identification Management has been addressing this and related issues for over two years.

Especially in Germany, irrigation holds enormous potential to save money. Countries like Israel, that rely heavily on irrigation, have already developed advanced technology tailored to local conditions. But in Germany, most crops are irrigated naturally – by rain. However, most rainwater evaporates or drains away and thus does not reach crops.

Although drip irrigation systems now allow controlled irrigation of crops, they are not used widely enough and are not tailored to the precise needs of farmers in Central Europe. Last year, the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Identification Media & Identification Management set up a network of SMEs and end users to address this problem. The Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology is funding the network as part of its national ZIM-NEMO program. The name of the network is “Assisted Growth – resource management in controlled crop cultivation”. Led by the experts at the Steinbeis Transfer Center, the network includes five technology companies, one distributor, two end users, and a scientific advisory board made up of university experts. The operation of the network is managed by an experienced consulting partner.

The Steinbeis Transfer Center for Identification Media & Identification Management has been focusing on green technology for some time, especially developing technologies and strategies for using resources in crop cultivation. The project is co-managed by Armin Bauerle, head of the Transfer Center, and Ronald Maier, network manager at T+T Technologie- und InnovationsConsult GmbH.

The launch phase of the network focused on developing a handful of initial ideas into marketable products. The QUBE-Box is an agricultural logistics system that allows nutrients to be directly distributed over fields in the form of granules or powder. This system has already undergone live testing in a related area: wood pellets for heating and electricity generation. In the future, the QUBE-Box will be used in fields to deliver nutrients for direct addition to the water in drip irrigation systems. Individually controlled irrigation makes it possible to deliver nutrients directly, saving resources via precise metering.

The FAN flipflow, an intelligent valve-based water distribution system with an independent control unit, is currently undergoing live tests. FAN flipflow was originally developed as an irrigation system for frost protection. During frosty weather, plants need extra irrigation to prevent ice damage. In the past, fields were watered manually by farmers switching irrigation systems on and off. With FAN flipflow, this happens automatically and is governed by sensors – even several fields can be automatically irrigated in this way. Finally, the Nutrigator – currently being designed by the network – will help farmers reap even more benefits from these irrigation products. Modular in design, the Nutrigator will make it possible to control complex irrigation systems and up to entire chains of irrigation systems.

The Nutrigator is all about “nutrigation” – delivering nutrients to crops via irrigation. Using the QUBE-Box for nutrients in granular and paste form, plus premixed containers for liquids, nutrients can be precisely metered and delivered to crops via irrigation in a controlled manner. In the future, the quantity and delivery method of water and fertilizers needs to be tailored to the type of crop and the size of the area under cultivation. Farmers can manually configure the control software, allowing them to take full control of automatic nutrigation and irrigation.

If long term forecasts are right, water is set to become an even more precious resource in Central Europe. Yet especially when it comes to agricultural irrigation, not sufficient technologies have been developed to ensure a sustainable and efficient use of water – and the few technologies that have are hardly in widespread use. All the more reason for the Assisted Growth network to dedicate itself to solving this problem.

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