An idea that began as a homework assignment has developed into a product that is helping farmers solve real-world soil compaction problems and raise their yields. It’s also taken Colin Hurd from college student to CEO of his own company less than a year after his graduation from Iowa State University (ISU).

"It’s crazy, reflecting on it. It just started out as an idea in that class. Now it’s what I do every day," said the 24-year-old Hurd, president and CEO of Agriculture Concepts and inventor of a product called TrackTill. "In a matter of three years, my life has changed so dramatically because of that class."

Hurd, who graduated from Iowa State with a degree in agricultural studies last May, came up with the idea for TrackTill during an agricultural entrepreneurship course at ISU. The product consists of vertical rolling tines that slice the soil to relieve pinch-row compaction behind the planter and tractor wheels. In yield trials conducted by Iowa State last year, TrackTill increased corn yield in the compacted rows by an average of 8.12 bushels.

"For me, it’s really exciting to offer a solution that helps move the industry a step forward," said Hurd. "Every product that gives us more yield is a step in the right direction."

Helping entrepreneurs 

Agriculture Concepts launched production of TrackTill with help from ISU’s Agricultural En­­trepreneurship Initiative, which was started in 2005 to encourage students to broaden their understanding of entrepreneurship and business development. Agriculture Concepts is the second student business launched through the program.

A crop scouting company, ScoutPro, was launched in 2011.

Hurd said the ISU entrepreneurship initiative gave him the confidence and discipline needed to take his idea from the classroom to market. He researched the need for his product, developed a prototype and did the testing needed to write a successful business plan.

"That gave me some structure and also established accountability," he said. "The biggest challenge for me was the very first steps. Making the decision to commit resources — my own money, my own time — just believing in the potential and from that point getting to a prototype."

While most of his college classmates have gone on to work for other companies, Hurd said he’s enjoying the daily challenges and rewards that come along with building a company and product from the ground up.

"Having the day-to-day challenges is exciting to me," he said. "When something goes wrong, you’re the one who has to take responsibility. It makes failure a lot harder, but it also makes success a lot more fun."

Countering compaction

Hurd’s idea for TrackTill was sparked by an experience he had working for a farmer during planting season one spring.

"I could see the tracks from the planter and tractor, which had created notable in-row compaction," he said. "The compaction led to yellowing corn plants and stunted growth. That equals yield loss."

Farmers are dealing with more compaction problems as planters increase in size and weight with center-fill seed hoppers and fertilizer tanks.

Research suggests farmers with center fill planters are losing an average of 10 bushels per acre, with losses approaching 20 to 30 bushels not uncommon in situations where fields are planted in wet conditions.

"A lot of people aren’t really aware of how much they’re losing in certain rows," Hurd said. "If you’re using a center-fill planter and you haven’t done something to address this, you really need to."

TrackTill’s vertical rolling tines, which attach directly behind the wheels of a planter, help alleviate compaction by fracturing the soil below the surface. The tines pass through the soil subsurface without disturbing the seedbed and are easily raised or lowered. Testing last year with a penetrometer showed 16 percent less compaction in rows where TrackTill was used.

"As the tines go through the soil, it sends a fracture force through the ground," explained Hurd. "It allows the roots to get in there, it allows the water to get in there and it allows air to get in there. Those three things combine for yield."

Paying for itself

Based on last year’s research showing an 8-bushel yield increase in the center rows, TrackTill will pay for itself in less than two years for most farming operations, Hurd said.

Farmer Jeff Huitt of Perry said TrackTill performed well last spring with his John Deere DB Series 120-foot planter, even in wet conditions.

"I was contemplating lifting them up out of the way in some muddy spots but decided to leave them down," he said. "I noticed that the TrackTill actually helped hold that main frame out of the wetter, mucky areas better than I had planned. That shows me it’s going to be able to hold up in any adverse conditions."

As the growing season progressed, Huitt said he was able to see visual differences in areas where TrackTill was used, which correlated to yield gains.

Taking it to the field

Agriculture Concepts has started limited commercial production of TrackTill for use this spring on center-fill planters with 30-inch row spacing, such as John Deere’s DB series or other large planters, Hurd said. He is looking to gather additional feedback from TrackTill customers this year, and the company plans to expand production for more planter designs and narrow-row spacing for the 2015 planting season.

"I’m looking for very progressive, open-minded producers who are willing to take the next step in optimizing their production across the planter," he said.

The TrackTill units are made in Iowa using all U.S. parts to ensure quality, Hurd said.

Kyle Meyer, an Iowa State agricultural systems technology graduate, oversees product development and production activities.

In addition, Agriculture Con­cepts has formed a marketing and distribution partnership with the Van Wall Group, a John Deere dealership group headquartered in Perry.