Digging around in the dirt might not be the best way to sample soil

WOODSTOCK, Ont. — Reading the soil’s past might be a better way to tell what it can grow in the future.

Barry Raymer of Tavistock, Ont., has been developing his system of soil analysis for nearly a decade.

The European-born technology senses the degradation of soil to tell what is actually present in the top layer.

By working from a few reference dirt samples, the two foot wide sensor can roll over the land on an all-terrain vehicle or a vehicle such as a Jeep to measure nutrients, soil density and coarseness and other agriculturally relevant features without breaking ground.

The sensor bar, mounted 24 inches above the field’s surface, measures gamma rays from naturally occurring radio-nuclides such as caesium 137, uranium 238, thorium 232 and potassium 40 and produces 335 measured points per acre.

“It’s something you can’t do, even with grid sampling, to get that full picture of the field,” Raymer said while attending Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in Woodstock.

“We take a few core samples for some very precisely located points in the field and get a lab analysis for reference, and that helps guide the model,” he said.

In fact, the soil texture, pH and water content is critical to making the mapping model work, as these tend to influence the readings.

The Soiloptix probe measures the first foot’s gamma radiation and uses software to translate the decaying soil signatures into nutrient maps.

Paul Raymer of Soiloptix said the company has more than 25 maps that can be built from the data.

Macro and micro-nutrients, plant available water, soil texture, pH and salinity can all be found using the tool.

“We map organic matter, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, soil textures like percentages of clay, sand and silt, plus plant available water and bulk density. We have maps for more than those,” he said about the field maps that producers can get using the technology.

“Maps can be made in a couple days and back in farmers’ hands,” he said.

Zack Harmer heads programing at the company and says it is developing mapping well beyond the normal sets that producers and retailers have come to know.

“Because it can capture so much data there are lot of options, some more complicated than others,” he said.

Producers can use those to build variable rate application plans.

Barry Raymer said they are seeing more landlords and tenants using the analysis to establish base lines for land rentals and for landowners looking to sell their fields, “being able to market what is actually being sold, by its productive attributes and capacity, rather than raw acres.”

The Ontario company has recently expanded into China, where it is running 10 units, as well as places such as Argentina and Western Canada.

“I think it is a good fit for larger fields like those in the Prairies and (U.S) Great Plains,” he said.

“Because there is variability, but with smaller, per acre returns, the information about what is in a field can be magnified in returns, whether from input savings or improved grain yields.

“It provides a complete reference for the field, rather than a lot of points or zones created from a bunch of blended samples from what you think are related or like areas.”

The Raymers’ business model is based on offering precision agriculture maps for producers on a fee per acre basis.

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