How In-Soil Data Can Drive Sustainability, Even During a Pandemic

By Guy Sela, VP of Agronomy, CropX (August 4, 2020)

This contributed content first appeared in our sister publication, GAI News.


Farming has been under extreme economic and environmental pressures for years. However, the current COVID-19 crisis has turned an even brighter spotlight on the importance of effective farm management systems for the long-term security of both our ag industry and our global food security, as recent technology advances have the power to drive a more sustainable ag ecosystem.

The root of many farming challenges lies beneath the ground, as healthy soil provides the foundation of successful farming. Information gleaned from above (e.g., satellite imagery, drones) can only assess what already happened – the pest is already attacking the field; disease is already starting to ravage the crop; drought is already taking its toll. On the other hand, below-ground insights have a much higher predictive power. Unfortunately, the endless amount of data below the surface of every farm is often ignored.


The Benefit of In-Soil Data


Accurate in-soil data has the potential to fundamentally change farming practices – making them more effective, sustainable, and profitable even in the midst of a pandemic. How? In-soil data can help prevent the most aggressive, and often most destructive, crop concerns, helping farmers overcome the challenges of both today and tomorrow.


Minimizing Water Waste – Water waste creates both economic and soil challenges. Excess irrigation may result in runoff and water leaching below the rootzone. By giving farmers tools that provide insights about the water status in their soil, soil sensing platforms can help farmers optimize their irrigation water usage. In addition, optimizing water usage also reduces energy consumption by pivots and irrigation equipment.

Focusing on Crop Nutrition – Fertilizer runoff and nitrogen leaching caused by overwatering diverts essential nutrients away from the crops and into groundwater. This creates a major sustainability challenge by reducing the availability of nitrogen for crops during critical growth periods and polluting water sources. Aligning irrigation with soil-properties and with the water requirements of the crop ensures crops get the nutrients they need, while reducing water pollution.


Customizing Needs – Different soil types have different properties that cause water flow to vary tremendously. Furthermore, soil can vary even on the same field. Installing sensors to account for soil characteristics and variations helps farmers get more accurate readings to fine-tune irrigation and fertilization for every crop and field to maximize growth and yield.


Getting the Full Picture – Moisture and nutrients are not evenly distributed across a field or at different depths. Soil sensors that can provide measurements at multiple depths can give farmers a complete look at what is happening below the surface and how that affects their crops. When those sensors are tied to a big data platform, farmers also get the benefit of advanced analytics and insights on how to more efficiently manage their farm operation.


Many Still Miss the Mark

While the adoption of soil sensors has been steadily increasing because of the benefits noted above, most soil sensors still cannot accurately measure soil moisture. As water moves unevenly through preferred pathways in the soil, sensors reliant on tube- or fork-shaped probes tend to deliver severely biased readings. Tube-shaped probes are inserted directly into a drilled hole or with a slurry mixture, whereas fork-shaped probes are inserted into the walls of a pit and then backfilled with soil. When installing such probes, even expert technicians disturb the natural soil structure around the probe – significantly increasing water flow. In addition, the sensors reliant on tube- and fork-shaped probes typically require extremely complex calibration and additional support during the installation process, which creates added time and cost challenges.


For farmers to get the most from the vast amount of data below their soil surface, first they need to get sensors into the ground. With the physical distancing measures currently in place, easy-to-install, self-calibrating sensors have become even more important. Breaking through the time/labor barriers of tube- and fork-style probes, spiral soil sensor probes with integral communication capabilities provide a do-it-yourself way for farmers to properly and safely install advanced sensors in their fields in minutes. Once the probe is successfully inserted, the spiral design ensures that the sensors can accurately measure what is happening in the soil – giving farmers a simple, fast way to get the most precise view of soil and crop needs across their fields at any given moment.


Digging Into the Opportunity

Soil is the foundation for a thriving ag ecosystem. While the vast amount of data below the surface of fields around the globe remains untapped, the insights gleaned from in-soil data have the potential to change how we grow our crops – and in turn, how we drive a more sustainable global food chain. Continued advances in soil probes and their corresponding data platforms will help the ag industry evolve and meet changing food chain needs. So let’s dig in!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR


An agri-entrepreneur, Guy Sela is a plant nutrition and water treatment expert. Before joining CropX in 2019 as VP of Agronomy, he was the founder and CEO of SMART! Fertilizer Management, a digital-ag platform for optimizing fertilizer use in agriculture. Previously, Sela worked as a production manager and water specialist at Syngenta. Spending many years researching and experimenting ways to improve agricultural production and bringing progress to developing countries, he honed his skills on commercial farming and water treatment projects around the world working with thousands of growers and agronomists. Sela holds a Bachelor of Science in Soil & Water Science from the Hebrew University.

All views, data, opinions and declarations expressed are solely those of the author(s) and not of Women in Agribusiness, GAI News, or parent company HighQuest Group.

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