Soil scanner delivers margin-boosting data

Article taken from Farmers Weekly, November 2018, written by Adam Clarke.

The latest sensing technology to hit British shores is providing the data required to improve soil management and target inputs more efficiently than ever before.


A handful of companies have offered UK growers soil scanning services for several years, but their kit has so far only provided electro­conductivity (EC) data to establish the soil type.

This allows growers to divide their fields into zones, which can then be targeted with traditional soil sampling and used to create variable application maps for nutri­ents and seed.

US Technology

At the end of 2014, agronomy provider Agrovista raised the bar by importing a piece of American gadgetry that not only scans soil type as it moves, but also measures soil organic matter and pH.

While the MSP3 from Kansas­based tech company Veris did its job perfectly well, it required a 70-80hp tractor and a remote hydraulic system to pull and oper­ate its functions.

Graeme Barrett, precision agron­omy manager at Keith Mount Liming - which runs the machine in conjunction with Agrovista - says it would be too expensive to invest in a tractor solely for the Veris and it's also impractical for covering large areas.

"You can't really use a tractor to shift the MSP3 from farm to farm as it is too slow, so we were lifting it on and off a trailer towed by a pidrup.

"We were then having to borrow a tractor from the customer and that required a time-consuming set-up whenever it was moved between jobs," he adds.

New Scanner

To solve these issues, it was decided to replace the MSP3 with Veris' lighter and more compact U3 scan­ner, which has been put to work in the UK this summer for the first time.

With its own self-contained hydraulic system, it can be towed by a 4x4 utility vehicle (UTV) or pidrup at speeds of up to 15mph and output can hit lS0ha a day in favourable conditions.

Driven in parallel lines 12m apart, EC, organic matter and pH results are fed to a laptop or tablet installed with Veris' FieldFusion software.

This logs the results data and provides the operator with real­time information via a dashboard, helping to keep an eye on all three data streams and ensuring they are working as they should be.

Advantages

One of the advantages of using the Veris over a standard soil testing system is that it offers double the sampling intensity by working on a 0.Sha grid rather than the tradi­tional lha layout.


For pH and organic matter, this means growers get more robust analysis of levels in the soil for more accurate variable-rate applica­tion maps, which helps make better use of costly remedial products.

The EC results help growers target traditional sampling by soil type for variable-rate phosphate and potash, plus draw up variable­rate seeding plans to achieve optimum plant populations across varying soil tex­tures.

While soil type scanning is a one-off exercise, the U3 can be used in subsequent years to moni­tor how soil conditioning inputs such as lime and manures are per­forming and amend applications accordingly.

Slope and curve

Interestingly, the U3 also uses eleva­tion and GPS data to map slopes and curves. When combined with soil type and organic matter data, it can create soil leaching risk and water-holding capacity maps.

Agrovista precision farming expert Jack Harris explains that the leaching risk maps can be used to fine-tune nitrogen applications, reducing rates where the nutrient is more lil<ely to be lost and vice versa. "If you are in a nitrate vulnerable zone it also helps minimise pol­lution, which is beneficial for the environment. Using the technology in this way might become a legal requirement in the future," he adds.

Smarter irrigation

Water-holding capacity maps are also useful, helping growers predict lil<ely nutrient availability. And for root and veg crop growers using irrigation, it better targets moisture probes to trad< soil moisture deficit.

With potatoes, for example, allowing soils to dry out too much at tuber initiation can trigger common scab epidemics - a prob­lem seen in crops this harvest after the hot and dry June.

Knowing where the driest zones of a field are will help place probes where water will be needed first, telling growers when to irrigate and ensuring all of the crop has adequate water to maintain quality and yield.

Mr Harris says layering all the information over yield data can also allow growers to correlate each parameter with crop performance and where it is poor, it might mean inputs are reduced relative to potential.

"It isn't necessarily about evening crops up - it's about improving gross margin across the field," he adds.

Compatibility

Any data generated using Veris' software can be imported into other farm mapping software, including Farmworks Office or MapIT Pro, for fine-tuning.

Once maps are created, they are compatible with farm management software such as GateKeeper or Muddy Boots, plus all machinery manufacturers' variable-rate applica­tion equipment.

As part of its service, both Keith Mount and Agrovista offer a grower consultation on how best to use all the information, which is presented in paper and/or raw data form, depending on preference.

A basic package for on-the-go soil type scanning, pH and organic matter testing, plus four calibra­tion soil samples per field to ensure accuracy, costs in the region of £20/ ha. Extra maps for leaching risk or water-holding capacity are an addi­tional £2.50/ha each.

 

10 November 2017

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