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SCAN, a precision agriculture tool to optimize nitrogen management in the fields

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Media Relations
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

In field corn farming, like other types of farming, managing nitrogen fertilizer as effectively as possible is a major concern. Deficient nitrogen fertilization seriously compromises performance, while overuse leads not only to unnecessary expenses for farmers, but also to harmful effects on the environment. Determining the correct dose is extremely important.

That is where SCAN (Soil, Crop, Atmosphere and Nitrogen) comes in—a brand new decision-making tool for precision agriculture. Available online since May 2017 for Quebec producers, it is a game changer when it comes to calculating the optimal nitrogen fertilizer needs for growing field corn. SCAN can not only help farmers improve farm profitability, but also allow them to make a real contribution to efforts to reduce the environmental impact of farming activities in Canada.

The system was developed at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC)’s Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu Research and Development Centre (RDC), by the team lead by researcher Nicolas Tremblay in collaboration with knowledge transfer and technology biologist Carl Bélec.

SCAN for economic benefits

AAFC’s research into nitrogen use in grain corn production has shown that a wide range of factors affect how plants use this nutrient. The two factors that have the greatest impact are soil type (surface texture) and weather conditions. Other factors also play a key, albeit smaller role. These include previous crop types, the soil’s organic materials content, the field’s potential yield, vegetation condition and the economic ratio (price of fertilizer/price of grain).

The AAFC team focused on research findings from across North America, primarily Quebec and Ontario, in order to develop its algorithm. SCAN was developed using the best available scientific evidence. It is the first artificial intelligence-based decision-making tool available to farmers. It takes into account all the factors that affect nitrogen’s behaviour, in real time.

Over the course of the three-year commercial field testing period (2013 to 2015), SCAN produced average gains of $25 to $49 per hectare, depending on the year. These benefits were obtained through savings on fertilizer or increased yield.

"SCAN is the best option for a farmer who wants to maximize profits related to nitrogen fertilizer.”

Nicolas Tremblay, Scientific Researcher, Crop Management and Nutrition, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

You can access SCAN (available in Quebec, in French only) by visiting the website (

After login, you can learn how to use SCAN by clicking on the Visite guidée tab on the site’s home page.

SCAN for the environment

On a global scale, the massive use of nitrogen fertilizer is a major source of pollution. According to the journal NatureFootnote 1, the overuse of nitrogen in agriculture is one of the three greatest environmental threats to the earth’s ecosystems.

Because SCAN technology makes it possible to determine crops’ actual needs, it eliminates cases of excessive nitrogen (N) use. In addition to savings on fertilizer for farmers, the pollutant load of mineral N in the soil is decreased, which translates into a reduction in nitrate (NO3) loss through leaching into waterways and water tables and decreased air emissions of ammonia (NH3) and nitrous oxide (N2O). Nitrous oxide is the third most common greenhouse gas regulated by the Kyoto Protocol. SCAN therefore provides essential information for Canadian producers wishing to contribute to Canada’s greater sustainable agriculture efforts.

2017 is only the beginning for this approach to precision farming. The SCAN tool continues to evolve and may be launched in Ontario as soon as 2018. In addition, research is adapting SCAN to eventually be suited to potato farming, and it is progressing well.

A newcomer to precision farming, SCAN will play a major role in years to come. It will enhance the profitability of Canadian farms while promoting sustainable farming practices that will help to safeguard the balance of Canadian and global ecosystems.

Key facts

Photo gallery

SCAN Web page, with data entry fields on the left and a satellite photograph of fields on the right.
The SCAN Web platform
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Quebec corn field

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