Steve Cubbage: Soil Sampling Can Be Improved at its Core

01:39PM Dec 11, 2019
Steve Cubbage
As a precision ag consultant, Steve Cubbage works with farmers to implement and manage hardware and data and bridge the gap between the two.
( Farm Journal Media )

The basic process of soil analysis as a fertility management tool has not changed much since the 1950s. But as fields and farms got larger, soil variability was recognized, and technology advanced. With the ability to precisely apply varying amounts of fertilizer using GPS technology, the business of soil sampling shifted into overdrive.

However, it is still an intensively manual endeavor. We need a better solution, given testing soil properties is now the bedrock of most precision agriculture agronomy programs.

Next-Generation Soil Tools

A true robotic soil sampler is just one of those technologies. Rogo Ag, based out of West Lafayette, Ind., has developed its SmartCore autonomous soil sampling system. Using a tracked Bobcat skid-steer chassis, it navigates fields using digital field boundary algorithms and Lidar sensors, which transmits light to detect objects. The robotic system collects samples through a hydraulic auger bit. SmartCore can return to each location at any point using RTK GPS and built-in navigational programming.

But what if you didn’t need a soil lab? SoilOptix, a company in Ontario, Canada, offers a hybrid soil-sampling model, a step toward a virtual soil lab. The system uses radiation sensors in conjunction with traditional soil sampling to collect more than 335 points per acre and up to 25 different layers of data. SoilOptix can map micro- and macronutrients, plant-available water, soil texture, pH and salinity at square-meter levels.

But what if you could check your soil 24/7? Teralytic is a New York-based soil analytics company that has developed what could be described as a Fitbit for your fields. Each one of the company’s soil probes contains two sensors, including what they claim is the world’s first NPK sensor. The probes transmit weather, soil moisture, pH, salinity, light and even aeration and respiration taking place within the growing crop. It updates all that information every 15 minutes.

Real-time data is also provided by Precision Planting’s SmartFirmer. The SmartFirmer uses a sensor that attaches to your planter’s row units to measure temperature, moisture, furrow uniformity, residue and organic matter.

Better Data, Better Decisions

Having real-time soil information allows for on-the-fly variable-rate seeding and fertility prescriptions. The number of data points created by such sensors because of their continuous sets of streaming data is mind-boggling.

The soil testing process is ripe for improvements. Soil tests are the most basic of basics when it comes to producing a crop. And like one of my good precision ag colleagues likes to say, “If you don’t test, it’s just a guess.”

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