The pressure’s on for agricultural soils.

There’s a ‘soil sentiment’ amongst a growing coalition of farmers, ecologists, climate scientists and – increasingly – agricultural machinery manufacturers. They’re all concerned about what we have, and often more accurately haven’t, been doing to the planet’s soils.


 

 

More than 95% of our food comes from soil-grown crops. That makes soil the most important element in our food system. Nutrients, water, oxygen and physical support – soil provides all of that to a growing crop.

Then there’s its ecosystem support: soil filters drinking water, provides habitat for one-quarter of the world’s species, and is the Earth’s largest repository of carbon after the oceans.

But intensive working of our agricultural soils – decades of ploughing and tillage using ever-bigger and heavier machinery, growing the vital staples of wheat, corn and soybeans, has taken its toll. In Europe alone, 70 per cent of soils are classified ‘unhealthy’.

No surprise, then, that farmers are leading efforts to relieve pressure on our soils. For years, they’ve shifted towards so-called ‘lo-till’ or ‘no-till’ cultivation practices: out with the diesel-drinking plough and in with the fuel-sipping ‘direct drill’.

These measures are not only energy-saving – the US Department of Agriculture has calculated that farmers would save 306 million gallons of fuel by managing just one crop in their rotation without tilling – but also climate-saving: ploughing a field can release up to three tonnes of CO2 per hectare, more than a typical family car produces in one year. And a no-till soil is less prone to soil erosion, has more biological activity and increased organic matter: attributes which, over time, create further economic and agronomic gains for the grower.

This interest in reduced tillage systems is what Canadian company Susterre hopes to tap, with a radical rethink of the physical process of planting the seed in the ground.

“Conventional direct drills use a disc or a blade to slice through any plant residue remaining from the previous crop, and the top layers of compacted soil,” explains Susterre CEO Michael Cully. “Oftentimes, there’s simply too much residue. The knife or disc can’t cut through, so the seed doesn’t get planted properly. It’s not bedded into the soil, and that reduces its chances of germination and quick establishment in the field.”

Susterre’s secret weapon is water. The company has borrowed an idea from industrial manufacturing, where high-pressure water jets are used to cut through materials like steel and other metals.

“The concept originated in Australia more than ten years ago,” says Michael. “The developers brought their work back to Ontario and took it through four rounds of prototypes, before realising they didn’t have the resources to commercialise the technology.”

That’s when Michael arrived. Headhunted by Carrot Ventures, the Calgary-based venture capital company that purchased the water-jet IP, he became CEO in 2020 and has led the company to the point of readiness for commercial sales.

But it’s not been an easy journey: Michael has had to balance the company’s success in finance rounds with the restraints imposed by both the pandemic and the supply chain shortages that characterised the global economy’s post-Covid recovery.

“It wasn’t that difficult to get the basic technology working, to show how our water jets – operating at pressures of some 60,000psi – would be more efficient and more effective than the legacy systems.

“A bonus was to discover how the water-jet approach excelled in damp conditions. Wet residues, even after only dew or light rain, can prove impenetrable to discs and knives. Farmers hate delays of any kind, so anything that removes or sidesteps a potential cause for delay is welcomed: they have more time in the day for other tasks, or even planting additional acreage in the same timeframe.”

With the prototypes approved, Michael started to focus on how the system would be powered in the field. That required a very important decision: that the company’s first model would be what Cully terms ‘agnostic’.

“In the North American market – our initial launch target – the most common size of planter is a 12-row, i.e. it lays down 12 parallel rows of seed on each pass of the field. We knew a planter like this needed a tractor power output of at least 150hp. We also knew our water-jet system – at 60,000psi, through nozzles of 7/1000ths inch – required 12.5 horsepower per row.

“Combining the two would increase the power requirement to as much as 370 horsepower. That’s a totally different market segment, whereas we wanted a solution that would work with the much smaller tractors in use across most North American farms.”

That’s why Michael went for the agnostic option: the water-jet system would be an aftermarket fit, compatible with any model of planter, with power provided by an engine mounted on a power cart.

“Such a system would appeal to a broad range of end-users,” he points out. “It’s an easy to add system for a farmer already familiar with these ‘regenerative’ practices of no-till, but also a viable option for the conventional farmer wanting to switch.

But what of the engine this power cart would need? In January 2022 Susterre turned to PKI, the Perkins distributor based in Eastern Canada, for advice.

“Actually, it was more than advice,” recalls Michael. “We’re not engine people. But we had just closed on a $2m seed round, we needed our field-going prototype by May, and we needed an engine by February. We needed that engine quickly.

“We chose Perkins primarily for its reputation and brand awareness, conscious that as a new entrant in the agricultural machinery sector we needed to project the right image. We certainly didn’t want to go to the market as a new brand ourselves, with a machine powered by an unknown brand.

“But equally important was the need to demonstrate neutrality in the marketplace,” Michael adds. “Our distribution strategy hinges on existing machinery dealers. They already have franchises for a variety of big names. If we selected a ‘wrong’ engine, we’d immediately limit the dealers we could talk to.

“Perkins made sense for all the right reasons: it’s a universal engine brand, parts and service provision is second to none, and we knew many of our target dealers would be Perkins stockists, and familiar with Perkins engines.”

PKI account manager Daniel Tran says it was a distinctive project. “It’s rare to have an opportunity like this where there’s an engineering blank sheet, with a brief to start from scratch with an engine specification.

“Usually, a customer needs an engine that will fit the requirements – power and physical space – of an already engineered machine. But this was a fresh install. Susterre was happy to build the cart to fit the engine.

“We were also constrained by supply. Lead times were challenging across the industry. It was a tough call to ensure we could get an engine in the required – and very compressed – timeline.”

PKI suggested the Perkins® 1206F, the six-cylinder variant of the 1200 Series that not only meets the U.S. EPA Tier 4 Final standards but also provides the 350 horsepower that Susterre wanted for the first field prototype.

“It’s an ideal engine for this type of work,” says Daniel. “Aftertreatment units are engine-mounted, which reduces the complexity of the installation. It’s effectively a ‘plug and play’ unit, which worked well with the compressed timeline and deployment of our own A&I resources to get all the engineering aspects sorted.

“Selecting an engine from the 1200 Series also gives them the opportunity to easily upgrade to EU Stage V emission standards with the 1206J, which is likely to be the next step.”

Michael says the Perkins/PKI combination proved a good decision. “The service delivered as much as the product, and the teamwork involved – our development team, and the seamless interaction between PKI and Perkins – ensured a healthy and successful co-operation.”

Two prototypes are now operating in the field, showing positive results and generating growing interest amongst farmer groups. “Early side-by-side trials, run with the support of a third-party agronomist, have shown yield increases of at least six per cent and as much as 12 percent,” Michael notes, “while reducing the cost of planting by about 13 percent.

“That’s across two seasons. We’ve also seen how the system can have other benefits too, such as the ability to use a liquid fertiliser as the cutting fluid.

“Fertiliser uptake is reliant on soil moisture, but by injecting a liquid fertiliser alongside the seed, farmers have fewer worries about drought implications, or losing fertiliser to run-off and volatilisation – providing environmental benefit too.”

Michael says all these benefits add appeal to the new system, but more importantly improve the return on investment. “Early calculations show a farmer should see payback for our system within two years. That compares very favourably with other farm investments: field drainage installation, for example, is typically calculated on a seven-year payback.”

The list of collaborators is growing too. Michael says a new trial in organic cotton has been agreed with the former head of the US Cotton Council, while 2024 sees formalised testing begin at key research institutions in North America, including the University of Guelph and North Dakota State University. Meanwhile, one of the largest machinery dealers in North Dakota has enquired about trialling the system, a contingent from Brazil has visited to see the machines in action, and there have even been requests from the United Kingdom – well-known for its farmers’ willingness to embrace new ideas and set new yield records.

“We’re focusing on North America for first sales in 2024 and 2025,” Michael explains, “and there’s no doubt that Brazil is a very similar market to North America, with its heavy emphasis on corn and soybeans: we’ll seek to generate further interest there.

“Developing the system for small grain compatibility – wheat and barley – will be key to entering the European market.”

Right now, Michael’s looking forward to 2024 and the show circuit. “For decades, we haven’t changed the way we plant crops. We want to get this in front of farmers to show them what it can do. This is an innovation that can help make them and their businesses more sustainable.”

Susterre will be at the Farm Progress Show, Iowa, in August and the Canada Outdoor Farm Show, Ontario, in September.

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Susterre CEO Michael Cully

Susterre CEO Michael Cully
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Agriculture
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Agricultural water-jet system
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Crops in soil
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Irrigated crops
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Lines of crops in a field