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Hand-held science helps farmers grow wiser

Israeli startup’s miniature spectrometer is improving yields and revenues

SciO, a hand-held near-infrared spectrometer that is helping to revolutionize farming (Consumer Physics)
SciO, a hand-held near-infrared spectrometer that is helping to revolutionize farming (Consumer Physics)

The food a dairy cow eats is key to its health, milk content and reducing waste. But for farmers, figuring out exactly how much to feed cattle has long been a guessing game full of constant adjustments and waste. Even slightly humid weather could add moisture to grain silos, reducing the number of calories per pound of animal feed. Until now, farmers could only be sure of factors like feed moisture content if they sent samples for lab tests, or conducted tests on site with bulky, expensive equipment – something often not worth the time or effort, especially for smaller farmers.

Now, a hand-held mobile device, called SCiO, from Israel-based Consumer Physics, quickly tells farmers the moisture content of their animal feed. Each morning, farmers can dip the card-sized gadget into a bin or bag of feed, and within minutes the moisture content, along with other data, pops up on an accompanying mobile phone app. Then they know how much to serve their cattle that day. 

Gone are the days of waiting for lab tests. “In 10, 15 minutes you can do all the feeds you’re going to use that day,” said Jim Vanderlinde, who has used the device on his dairy farm in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

Miniaturized technology

The SCiO device relies on the well-established technique of near-infrared spectroscopy – which identifies molecules like water, sugar and proteins, according to the way they absorb light. Until SCiO miniaturized the technology, it was confined to labs. Now it’s available to use anywhere with an internet connection. Distributed through partnerships with multinational agriculture companies, including Cargill Inc., SCiO also includes cloud-based software that tracks and analyzes the data.

“They’re portable, easy to use and cloud connected, so data is easily accessible,” said Damian Goldring, cofounder and chief technology officer at Consumer Physics.

Changing agriculture

SCiO is just one example of how tiny, internet-connected sensors and clouds full of data are changing agriculture and food production. The global market for such technology, known as precision agriculture, was worth about $4.7 billion in 2019, and is growing about 13% a year, according to Grand View Research.

Sensor devices are improving crop yields and animal health, as well as saving water and money, ultimately allowing farmers to produce more food with smaller environmental impacts. 

By 2030, farmers worldwide will save about $100 billion due to precision agriculture, according to a report from the World Economic Forum.

The SciO Cup: Fill it up and the nutritional data appears on the farmer’s phone (Consumer Physics)

“These solutions also make farming a more secure profession,” said Shmuel Rausnitz, a research analyst for agriculture technology at Start-Up Nation Central, a nonprofit that tracks startups and high-tech investment in Israel, home to an expanding AgTech sector. “It gives farmers more knowledge and more control over the growing process.”

Many Israeli precision agriculture startups have received new funding over the last year, he said, making it one of the fastest-growing parts of the AgTech sector.

“We are calling 2020 ‘the year of precision agriculture,’” Rausnitz said. Another Israel-based company, CropX Technologies, which uses sensors to monitor soil conditions, recently launched a partnership with a large US irrigation equipment company, Reinke Manufacturing.

Farmers who use SCiO say they throw away less cattle feed, and can better track and adjust the diets of their animals. This summer the system became easier to use when Consumer Physics integrated the SCiO device into a mug-sized cup, which farmers simply fill with feed, then wait a few seconds for data on its contents to appear on their phone. 

“I would say I waited for (something like this) my entire career,” said Keith Sather, a Minnesota-based dairy cow nutritionist and founder and CEO of Feed Supervisor Software. It has allowed dairy products to have a more consistent quality, he said. 

Handheld device

“We can’t suffer drops in percent butterfat because we didn’t monitor the percent moisture,” Sather said. “Moisture changes can happen relatively quickly and I can confirm it instantly.”

Consumer Physics, backed by the Jerusalem-based OurCrowd investment platform, also recently released a handheld device that measures the moisture-content of corn kernels while the cobs are still on the plants. This lets farmers know the optimal time to harvest corn, not just maximizing taste, but also ultimately producing better animal feeds and seeds.

“SCiO devices triggered a domino effect in our entire process. It meant we began making faster and smarter decisions,” said Neal Campbell, production agronomy manager at Beck’s Hybrids, a large U-based seed company.

Consumer Physics is currently developing similar tools for wheat and soybean growers, and for use further down the food chain, for tasks like evaluating the makeup of flavors and other ingredients. 

“It’s remarkable how quickly this new technology is adopted into the field,” said Steve Lerner, head of marketing at CHR Hansen, a Denmark-based global food ingredient developer that recently began using SCiO. “We think it’s simply a sign of its utilitarian purpose.”

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