Tools & data

Background

"Soil sampling vital for accurate application of fertiliser"

Remote vision data does not offer sufficient information for the accurate application of fertiliser, says CEO and founder Sam Duncan of Australian company FarmLab. “People ask us all the time whether this could work for them for the application of nitrogen or phosphorus. But we have a firm belief that you can‘t. You need some level of soil sampling.”

A technology like NDVI can be used, Sam Duncan explains. “You can create zones with it, but you shouldn’t use it by itself to apply fertiliser. You end up with a zone map with areas of high, medium or low biomass. And if you apply your fertiliser to the area with low biomass, you may be overapplying your fertiliser. Because there could be other problems, like a water deficiency. You can’t just look at what’s happening above the ground. Comparing remote visions results with soil tests usually shows a poor correlation.”

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FarmLab CEO Sam Duncan: "A lot of farmers overapply their fertiliser." - Photos FarmLab
FarmLab CEO Sam Duncan: "A lot of farmers overapply their fertiliser." - Photos FarmLab

Long-term impact

FarmLab has built its technology, that works with a mobile app, to show farmers the long-term impact of their choices. “That helps them to make better decisions”, Duncan says. “If you look at increasing fertiliser usages over time and you‘ve got five years of a history, you can identify if there is something else going on that’s contributing to that increase in fertiliser-use. That’s where things such as carbon, rainfall and clay content come into play.”

Cheaper tests

FarmLab kept its technology simple and cheap. “In Australia soil testing is still expensive”, Duncan explains. “Because of the labour involved. We get wholesale prices through our partner-labs, so we can offer the tests about 20% cheaper than what the consumer would pay the lab directly.” FarmLab soil tests start at AUS 45 dollar per test.

FarmLab’s technology also resolves known statistical and logistical challenges. “Statistically you have to make sure you take the samples from the right spot in the paddock to make the right composite sample.”

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The Farmlab team out in the field.
The Farmlab team out in the field.

Historical soil sample data

To make this easier for farmers, FarmLab worked with the University of Sydney to take historical soil sample data gathered from individual locations through its agronomist app and mapped it out over whole farms and regions, generating insights into soil health across wide areas of Australia’s farmland.

With this information and out of the box datasets FarmLab helps agronomists to create zones or strata to identify on what information the samples should be based on, e.g. yield or carbon. “We can then be more accurate in the application of fertiliser”, Duncan says. “The whole point of sampling is to diagnose an issue or to apply an input and to identify what rate to apply on what location.”

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  • A view of the map and a sample point on the FarmLab mobile app.

    A view of the map and a sample point on the FarmLab mobile app.

  • A hybrid soil carbon map, using research from the University of Sydney developed as part of the Farm Soil Mapping project. These maps combine soil test results with remotely sensed data to create farm-scale soil maps and models that can be used by consultants.

    A hybrid soil carbon map, using research from the University of Sydney developed as part of the Farm Soil Mapping project. These maps combine soil test results with remotely sensed data to create farm-scale soil maps and models that can be used by consultants.

Growing interest in VRA

The interest in variable rate application (VRA) is growing in Australia. Currently about 20% of Australian growers use VRA. Agronomists can put FarmLab’s data into a variable rate spreader for application of nitrogen at a set rate.

“But farmers who are just starting with soil testing, take the process in small steps”, Duncan explains. “They can’t go from just getting the first data to using a variable rate spreader. A lot of our clients don’t use VRA. They start with a single test across the fields and choose a single rate first. Then they work their way through the process. And VRA does not work for certain crops because there is no high return. But you don’t need to go that far to get economic benefits.”

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  • FarmLab allows users to compare remotely sensed data across their fields in order to understand yield limiting factors and productivity drivers. Historical data can be used to compare the effect of fertiliser and soil ameliorants on an annual basis.

    FarmLab allows users to compare remotely sensed data across their fields in order to understand yield limiting factors and productivity drivers. Historical data can be used to compare the effect of fertiliser and soil ameliorants on an annual basis.

  • Soil stratification or zoning using multiple layers to derive management zones across a farm or paddock.

    Soil stratification or zoning using multiple layers to derive management zones across a farm or paddock.

With soil testing agronomists get a good accuracy of what to apply to get the optimal usage, on the base of the major soil type or the major deficiency. “This is critical to know if you want to reduce the amount of fertiliser that is being used. Because a lot of farmers do overapply their fertiliser”, Duncan points out.

This also works for large farms. Sam Duncan says one of his clients chose to go for strategic sampling across his entire farm of 1400 hectare. In this mixed cattle-cropping operation FarmLab and the farmer looked at the areas where they found high fertility over several seasons and started to crop more intensively on these areas.

Sam: “The farmer used a variable rate application and as the years progressed ended up with a big picture that clearly showed where to focus on, with great results. Farmers often have high and low performing areas and it is vital to know where they are.”

30% cost savings

On average FarmLab saves farmers about 30% of their costs by cheaper sampling costs and reduced fertiliser input, is the experience of FarmLab. On large scale farms with broadacre cropping, the average savings are usually between 15% to 20%. “That’s simply by better understanding the soil type”, Sam says. “And therefore making better fertiliser decisions.”

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  • A navigation feature in the mobile app, allowing users to navigate using the phone's GPS to a sample point. Users can also integrate their own high accuracy GPS devices using the FarmLab Android App.

    A navigation feature in the mobile app, allowing users to navigate using the phone's GPS to a sample point. Users can also integrate their own high accuracy GPS devices using the FarmLab Android App.

  • Sample collection fields in the FarmLab mobile app, allowing users to collect photos, soil samples and other information both online and offline.

    Sample collection fields in the FarmLab mobile app, allowing users to collect photos, soil samples and other information both online and offline.

The ‘Uber for soil testing’

CEO Sam Duncan started FarmLab in 2016 to solve ‘a real challenge in agriculture’. “We looked at ways to better store and digitise soil test results”, he explains. “It started with soil carbon. We realised that, when we wanted to help farmers make better decisions to improve soil carbon, we needed to show them the data to start with. We aimed to make them see the long term changes in soil carbon and link that back to yield and farm management practices.“
Australian farmers currently often miss important information to fall back on. “We soon realised there is a data collection problem”, Duncan says. “Farmers and agronomists, who do soil sample collection, most of the time have their results in an Excel spreadsheet, e-mail or in PDF format. Often the data is used and then thrown away.“
Duncan and FarmLab co-founder Shahriar Jamshidi built a mobile application for farmers and agronomists to order a soil test from a partner laboratory, arrange collection and testing parameters. The data goes straight to the platform.
“We then interpret it, turning the data into digital soil maps for agronomists and farmers to better interpret and better manage their soil over the long-term”, Duncan explains. “This also means we can track trends and improve the overall fertility of soil across the farm and across Australia. Basically users get the results in the app and geotag their site. It is a simple concept. We call it the ‘Uber for soil testing’.”

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