Farmers in Ontario, Canada now have access to soil-mapping technology that uses radiation sensors in conjunction with traditional soil sampling. This somewhat new-to-Canada technology is being touted as a next-level method of measuring soil fertility, as well as water retention capability.
As can sometimes be the case, however, the actual usefulness of such big-data tools is dictated by individual business realities.
Ontario company SoilOptix has been offering a high-definition topsoil mapping system – based on technology originally developed in Europe – for the last five years. It works by driving over a field with a small vehicle (ATV, truck, etc.) fitted with a scanner measuring the natural gamma radiation emitted by soil. That radiation indicates micro and macro nutrients, plant-available water, soil texture, PH, and salinity levels of the soil at square-metre levels.
Paul Raymer, owner and co-founder of SoilOptix, says that data is then combined with the results of strategically-taken, old-fashioned soil samples. This provides a resolution of approximately 335 data points per acre, with 25 layers (maps) available for more minute analyses of soil fertility characteristics. The generated data can also be incorporated into pre-existing precision management platforms. At a cost of CAN$ 25.00 per acre, too, Mr Raymer says his company’s services are designed to compete in price with one-acre grid sampling. Currently, Mr Raymer estimates they service about 100,000 acres across the province.
Like other big-data technologies, though, it might not be for everyone – at least not yet.
Indeed, there are potential barriers to using such systems, specifically when it comes to differences in equipment, farm size, and the focus of the grower themselves. After all, if a farmer doesn’t own a planter or other piece of machinery equipped for variable-rate application – as can often be the case – it’s harder to put highly-specific soil management strategies into practice. Farmers working larger acreages and those renting land, too, may not want to make the investment.
“The grower has to know what they want. Sometimes a broader [data] representation makes sense,” says Mr Raymer. “If someone is limited in their land base and they want to micromanage, it’s a perfect fit.”
Overall, Mr Raymer says the service offered by his company and others like it “is not a silver-bullet solution,” but hopes to continue building the technology’s accessibility. Going forward, he says the SoilOptix team hopes to incorporate A.I. technology into their services, while streamlining the data feedback process.
“Farmers are making massive decisions based on this information,” he says. “We’re working to try and take the lab out of the equation.”