Finding Solutions Beyond The Classroom

By Molly C. Nance

UNL Students Develop New Ag Technologies

Finding solutions to complex problems is like finding a needle in a haystack — or maybe finding something more useful, like answers about crop health from infrared satellite imagery or ways to use robots that keep farmers out of dangerous grain bins or methods to move cattle between pastures without fencing. These futuristic technologies are in development right now through entrepreneurial startups at a business incubator partnership in Nebraska called The Combine.



Launched in October 2019, The Combine is a partnership with the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and Invest Nebraska, a nonprofit venture development organization that advises and invests in companies and early-stage business ideas in Nebraska.

Several private businesses, government agencies and nonprofit organizations are also involved, creating a powerful public-private partnership to foster innovation. The Combine works to provide capital, connections and curricula to help early-stage agriculture technology and food entrepreneurs from the Sandhills to the banks of the Missouri River.

A key to The Combine’s success is its connection with IANR, said Matt Foley, The Combine’s program director.

“Most important is IANR’s knowledge base, expertise and workforce development potential,” he said. “We’ve had out-of-state companies interested in partnering with us because they know we have brilliant professors and students focused on the future of agriculture and food production.”

Michael Boehm, University of Nebraska System vice president and Harlan Vice Chancellor for IANR said, “Building The Combine and, in the process, a bridge between Nebraska’s researchers and entrepreneurs makes all the sense in the world.

“UNL has a worldwide reputation as a leader in agricultural innovation, and Nebraskans are famous for their work ethic, ingenuity and systems thinking. … Throw in some long-standing and incredibly productive partnerships with industry, state and federal agencies, commodity groups and venture capital, and you have the perfect hub for all things ag- and food-tech. I can’t imagine a place better suited for this kind of collaboration and growth than Nebraska.”

Located in the Rise Building on Nebraska Innovation Campus, The Combine has a physical incubation space where undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff can work alongside other motivated, like-minded entrepreneurs. The organization provides educational programming, access to capital investment, networking opportunities and business resources to support the development and scale of new ag-tech companies.



One of those promising startups is Sentinel Fertigation, which uses drone- and satellite-collected imagery to predict when a corn crop needs fertilization.

“When I came to Nebraska as a master’s student, I knew I wanted to work on the nitrogen dilemma — nitrogen management for farmers,” said Jackson Stansell, CEO and founder of Sentinel Fertigation and a UNL doctoral candidate. “It’s a significant problem throughout the country, but especially in Nebraska because of groundwater contamination. It’s also a profitability issue because nitrogen is an expensive resource.”

A Harvard graduate and Alabama native, Stansell said Nebraska is also unique in the prevalence of irrigation. “We have the most irrigated acres of any state in the United States,” he said. “Fertigation is the process of applying fertilizer through irrigation, most commonly through pivots, and the technology hasn’t advanced much. Our team at UNL saw an opportunity to improve this and better manage fertigation.”

Stansell’s approach involves multispectral imaging and a unique algorithm he helped develop to evaluate crop plant health.

“Basically, we’re providing farmers with information about whether or not they need to apply fertilizer in a given week,” he said. “We help them manage their fertigation better and do it in a way that helps protect the environment and human health by reducing excessive nitrogen applications.”

Sentinel Fertigation uses patent-pending technology that analyzes plant nitrogen sufficiency using light reflectance off the crop canopy.

“Our indicator block framework gives us a week lead time, so we can provide predictive recommendations that allow the farmer to get ahead of nitrogen stress,” Stansell said. “The farmer can then apply fertilizer just before stress happens and preserve the yield potential of the crop.”

Importantly, this improved efficiency also adds to profitability.

“In 96% of our test cases, this system has resulted in higher yield per unit of nitrogen applied versus what farmers were doing previously,” he said. “Across those fields, we’ve saved an average of 22 pounds of nitrogen per acre, which is a significant amount considering farmers use an average of 200 to 250 pounds of nitrogen per acre.”

For reference, Nebraska is home to 5.2 million acres of irrigated corn crops.

Sentinel Fertigation has the potential to enable more value for growers, while also reducing nitrogen load in soil and groundwater.

“With ecosystem services markets that are coming online now, and with consumer-packaged goods, sustainability is important,” Stansell said. “We can be one of the companies that can verify sustainable, environmentally sound practices were used.”

Stansell said the system is geared toward larger farm operations and most likely will be used by agronomic advisers. “Farmers and consultants have been excited to learn about the system. They want to see a finished product,” he said. “We’re working on getting this to a seamless web application that’s easy for users to learn and implement, with recommendations delivered in a straightforward way.”

Farmers aren’t the only ones excited about Sentinel Fertigation. Stansell has received a $100,000 prototype grant from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development; a $25,000 strategic investment and development partnership with Agri-Inject Inc. of Yuma, Colorado; and a $25,000 investment from the Husker Venture Fund, a UNL College of Business program supported by private gifts from alumni and friends.

Stansell also was named Outstanding Graduate Student Inventor of the Year by NUtech Ventures, a nonprofit technology commercialization affiliate of the University of Nebraska, serving the Lincoln and Kearney campuses.

In addition, he received student support from the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska. Stansell is quick to share credit for his success with his University of Nebraska faculty, graduate students and extension educators.

“I’ve been blessed with university resources and connections here in Nebraska that I don’t think I would have found anywhere else,” Stansell said.

“The Combine has helped us get off to a strong start. Now, if we can gain additional funding, we can get a precision agronomist and some software developers on board and also grow our executive management team to really take Sentinel Fertigation to the next level.”

What does the future possibly hold for this high-tech startup?

“Honestly, I hope Sentinel Fertigation does not exist as a standalone app five to 10 years down the road,” he said. “Farmers and agronomists don’t want another app. I’d like to see this technology integrated into irrigation management systems to increase efficiency so farmers can manage everything about their irrigation and fertilization needs in one place.”



Grain Weevil is another prospering member of The Combine, born from a farmer’s request that he and his kids never have to enter a grain bin again.

Farmers often enter the bins to break up clumps or clogs to get the grain to flow out freely — a dangerous practice because of the risk of suffocation in the grain, which can behave like quicksand.

Grain bin accidents account for more than 20 deaths each year and many more injuries caused by augers within the bins that can crush limbs as a farmer attempts to move grain through them.

“Neither my son nor I are farmers,” said Grain Weevil CEO Chad Johnson, who founded the company with his son, Ben, a graduate of the UNL College of Engineering. “But we have always been interested in robots. Ben had an opportunity to develop a robot for a company in Chicago while he was in high school. A family friend saw that robot and asked if Ben could make a robot to keep him and his kids out of the grain bin.”

The pair did their research and found that although there are mechanical spreaders and electrical sensors in grain bin management, there weren’t any robots that could move and manipulate the grain.

“My electrical engineering education at the university helped me gain the knowledge I needed to develop the technology,” said Ben Johnson, Grain Weevil co-founder and chief innovation officer. “The Combine got us off the ground quickly — connecting us with partners and sharing ways to grow this idea into a business model.”

After several test concepts, the Grain Weevil robot progressed to a model that works well on grain using auger-based propulsion. Like a giant grain weevil bug, the device scurries across the grain, breaking clumps or clogs and feeding grain into extraction augers. Multiple robots can work together, manipulating the surface of stored grain and accomplishing different tasks.


“We started this as a safety device,” said Chad Johnson. “Farmer well-being is our No. 1 mission. But there are huge efficiencies we’ve discovered along the way. While the Grain Weevil is doing its thing, the farmer can be doing other tasks or watching their kid play baseball. Plus, there’s also improved quality by more effectively monitoring and managing stored grain.”

In addition to moving grain, the robots are collecting a variety of data, such as temperature, grain moisture and 3D imagery within the bin to detect foreign material and survey grain condition — information the farmer can use to quickly address any issues before they become problems and protect grain quality, maximizing their income.

With more than a million grain silos on farms across the U.S., there is massive market potential for the Grain Weevil.

“There are 12 million bushels of grain within a day’s drive of my hometown, Aurora, (Nebraska),” said Chad Johnson. “The Weevil could also work in commercial facilities and with specialty crops, like edible beans and nuts. There are different use cases for both grain and non-grain applications.”

The technology has sparked investment and honors from across the country, including winning the Farm Bureau Ag Innovation Challenge, the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for Collegiate Inventors in the “Eat It!” category and the audience favorite honor at the Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business Virtual Summit on AgTech, along with securing a $1.6 million series seed investment round led by Invest Nebraska.

With additional resources, the Johnson team said they’d like to add talent to their staff and scale up Grain Weevil production.

“Years down the road, we hope to never see ladders attached to grain bins,” said Chad Johnson. “All the tasks can be done by the Grain Weevil with zero accidents and deaths. There’s going to be a robot in every grain bin eventually, and we hope it’s a Grain Weevil.”



Innovative technology is also expanding in the livestock sector. UNL graduate and Kearney, Nebraska, native Jack Keating is putting his mechanical engineering education to work on his family’s cattle ranch in northern Nebraska.

“Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my dad on fencing,” Keating said. “It’s a tough job, and I thought there has to be a better way. My dad said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was invisible fencing for cattle?’ and that’s what started the idea.”

Effective pasture management is an important part of ranching, both for profitability and sustainability. To avoid overgrazing, livestock need to be rotated through a system of pastures — a manual process that is labor-intensive and hazardous. Studies show that livestock handling causes up to a quarter of all farm injuries, not including injuries involved with fencing, such as cuts, amputations and electrocution.

Keating described how the company’s technology works. “It started out as a collar-and-ear-tag system,” he said. “But to make the batteries last longer, we switched to an all-collar system that emits a small electrical stimulation — about the same level used in electronic fencing collars worn by dogs — to define pasture boundaries.”

The system includes mapping software, which can be used on a phone, computer or tablet, to create new fences across pastures, maximizing pasture grazing for any operation and accelerating cattle weight gain.

“Using Corral Technologies, a rancher knows their cattle are located where they are supposed to be. They can move cattle from one spot to another with the click of a button and create grazing plans to optimize pasture utilization,” Keating said. “These are benefits on top of the time and cost saved from manually managing fence lines, as well as protecting the health and safety of the ranchers.”

Keating credits The Combine with taking his idea from notes and drawings to actual product development and a business plan.

“I just knew what I wanted the system to do, but The Combine helped me understand the business framework and connected me to partners who shared input and saw the potential for this to be more than just a fencing product,” he said.“I’ve heard from ranchers across the country. They are so receptive to the system. So really, the biggest challenge has been on the development side — finding an affordable, effective and reliable mechanism for the collars.”

Last year, Corral Technologies was a grand-prize winner in the UNL College of Business New Venture Competition, an annual business pitch contest funded by private support. Corral received a $25,000 grant. The fledgling company also received $150,000 from the Nebraska Prototype Grant Program and was accepted into phase one of the AgLaunch Accelerator Program.

In the future, Keating said he sees Corral Technologies as a global system. “Our mission is to help ranchers everywhere have more profitable enterprises and safer processes,” he said. “But I see us as being not only a hardware company but also getting more into the software side as well, where we’re a full ranch management platform.”

The opportunities aren’t limited to cattle.

“There are huge opportunities in dairy cattle, backgrounding operations, seedstock operations, goats and sheep,” Keating said. “We can expand out into these other sectors. A lot of people quantify the benefits in dollars, but think about the benefits in terms of improved health and safety when you’re not digging post holes, running fence or working closely with animals weighing over a ton.”


These companies show the impact that can be made through Nebraska-bred ingenuity, education, collaboration and financial support. Locally developed agriculture technology can lead to global solutions — filling dinner plates from Chadron to Cameroon and promoting a better quality of life, while conserving the state’s vital natural resources.

Share this story:


Looking for more stories?