Sensor technology helping to map paddock soil

Sensor technology helping to map paddock soil

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Grain growers may one day soon be able to map soil in their paddocks without sending a single sample to the laboratory thanks to the efforts of an innovative researcher.

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Grain growers may one day soon be able to map soil in their paddocks without sending a single sample to the laboratory thanks to the efforts of an innovative researcher.

University of Sydney postdoctoral research fellow Edward Jones is working on new technology with GRDC investment, examining how sensors can be used to scan soil for properties such as clay content, water holding capacity, sodicity and pH.

His work has shown that by using a range of sensors to scan multiple soil samples across a paddock, it is possible to build an accurate digital soil map identifying variation within a paddock.

GRDC Manager Agronomy, Soils and Farming Systems John Rochecouste said the ability to map soil types in paddocks, without sending samples to the laboratory, would be an invaluable management tool for grain growers and potentially save them significant costs.

"Soil properties do not change rapidly, so once growers have developed a digital map it would become an important tool to guide their decision making and importantly it would not need to be updated annually," he said.

"Soil properties do not change significantly for pretty much decades, if not longer, unless there has been major intervention such as incorporating significant amounts of lime or gypsum.

"Things like sodicity and clay content are pretty fixed without intervention. While pH can decrease (acidify) gradually with time, but essentially they are pretty much fixed properties."

But, there is a series of complex steps required to develop sensors which can effectively calculate soil properties.

Mr Jones said to be able to predict properties of a new soil sample you must first build a soil spectral library and Mr Jones has been stockpiling soil samples from research projects dating back decades.

"So far in the project we have delved deep into this stockpile and scanned more than 8000 samples, primarily from the wheat-sheep belt of eastern Australia," he said.

"The most exciting thing has been the speed at which this technology is developing. One of the sensors I am using is a visible near-infrared spectrometer - the same technology used to estimate grain protein and moisture content at receival depots."

Dr Jones also said the next generation sensor was the size of a postage stamp and could be incorporated into a phone case and run using a smart phone.

The same sensor could also be used to scan plant leaves to diagnose a range of nutrient deficiencies.

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