Independent probes take the measure of the soil

There are numerous agronomic services that use satellite data to see what’s happening in real time in broad acre crops, and most of these services also allow for multiple data sets to be included through open API (application programming interface) infrastructure.

However, Teralytic soil sensor probe gives the company a niche compared to most companies because of the real-time soil chemistry information it provides.

“We provide out of the box satellite imagery from Sentinel and other third parties so you can monitor above ground what’s happening. We have an open API so any drone or satellite imagery can be snapped in, and then we can correlate what we’re seeing from the soil with what the satellite is seeing from the aerial side,” said Steven Ridder, chief executive officer and founder of Teralytic.

Teralytic launched its soil sensor probe in 2018, which uses 26 sensors that provide reports on soil moisture, salinity, NPK at three different depths (15 centimetres, 45 cm and 91 cm), as well as aeration, respiration, air temperature, light, and humidity.

Users install the sensors shortly after planting by using an auger provided by Teralytic, and then remove the sensor shortly before harvest. The probe communicates with the cloud via LoRa wireless technology, and users can monitor the readings and analytics through the web interface.

Ridder said real-time monitoring of soil chemistry is a sea change compared to how growers typically monitor their field’s fertility.

“Growers typically get a sole report done once a year. It’s typically done before or after harvest or planting. But by the time they actually apply fertilizer, and the plant starts growing and the weather starts happening, the data they got back in the spring or fall is stale,” he said.

“What they usually do is based off the calendar or based off what they’ve always done is apply in-season fertilizer based off some guess work or some models.”

Knowing where the nutrients levels are in the field will help growers provide the nutrients their plants need at the right time when side dressing in season.

Teralytic will soon add plant growth and nitrogen models to their service that use university research on what specific crops needs are during their growing cycle.

“If it’s corn in the R6 stage, its needs is x amount of nitrogen per day, and then compare that to what the soil is providing it; we can tell growers where they are on that path,” Ridder said.

Above ground, the soil probe measures lumens levels, temperature and humidity, which can be used to calculate growing degree days and possibly even help with disease forecasts.

“We don’t provide the disease forecast but we have an open API so if a university researcher or third party tool wants to input that data we’re sharing to make disease forecasts, that’s how it’s being used right now,” Ridder said.

He said there are a few canola growers in Canada that use the service to monitor their crops to see if they are heavy enough to warrant fungicide application, and also to help them with marketing decisions early in the growing year.

Teralytic’s wireless probe contains 26 sensors that report soil moisture, salinity, and nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium at three different depths, as well as aeration, respiration, air temperature, light and humidity. | Teralytic photo

Beyond helping growers with in-season decisions, Teralytic is positioning itself to help growers take advantage of sustainable grower programs that are starting to become available, especially in the United States, by demonstrating nutrient use efficiency and carbon sequestration.

“After the season we’re managing all the reporting and analytics, so we can actually tell you how much emissions you’ve leached off the field, either through leaching or through greenhouse gas emissions,” Ridder said.

“In the U.S. at least, a lot of government programs will pay farmers if they farm more sustainably. The (U.S. Department of Agriculture) can give up to $50 per acre per year.”

He said the company is working to measure carbon sequestration, including monitoring carbon dioxide at 15 cm to help track soil respiration.

“You can see in the data the actual nitrogen mineralizes quicker in no-till fields all because of the organisms in the no-till soil versus the conventional. So how fast you convert your nitrogen is something we detect, and it’s a proxy for how alive your soils are, in addition to the respiration,” Ridder said.

He said the company is attempting to get a project with the U.S. Department of Energy to add a nitrous oxide (N20) sensor to the probe, which would enable the company to measure field level emissions.

“If we have that N20 sensor we can take it to the carbon markets and really get these guys paid because the confidence level would be higher,” Ridder said.

The cost of the service is US$500 per probe per year, which includes the hardware, the software, and the networking analytics.

He said growers typically have one probe per 20 to 40 acres for row crops, and one probe every one to 10 acres for high-value crops like strawberries and nuts.

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