Laser’s rainbow of colours reveals soil makeup

The Logiag Laserag system measures elements in the soil, 
allowing the company to figure out which ones are lacking

A new, colourful way to analyze soil samples should be available to western Canadian farmers late this summer.

Logiag’s Laserag system uses laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) to precisely analyze soil elements, said company representative Ross Guenther.

He said the technology is common in the pharmaceutical and mining industries and, in partnership with the National Research Council of Canada, Logiag developed a way to use it in agriculture.

“The traditional method has been mixing the soil with chemicals to get the analysis,” Guenther said at Canada’s Farm Progress Show.

“What we do is we shoot it with a laser for 30 seconds, heat up the soil, the laser stops, it gives off a spectrosignature and we measure that spectrosignature.

“Each element has a different colour on the rainbow, so we’re able to measure the total elements and through a series of algorithms we convert that into plant available nutrients.”

The laser takes 3,000 readings of each sample and averages the result.Agronomists then provide recommendations for nutrient applications.

Farmers will send in soil samples in 50-gram recyclable cups, compared to the typical 250-gram bags.

Each cup has a bar code that is scanned in the field to create GPS co-ordinates for the sample.

Guenther said this makes the system clean and easy to use for both farmers and third-party agronomists.

It’s environmentally friendly because only the cups and dirt are required and both can be recycled.

“One of the main advantages of this is the repeatability,” Guenther said. “If you send us the same soil, you should get a similar spectrosignature.”

The number of samples farmers want analyzed will depend on their management practices. Farmers using precision agriculture will likely submit more samples than others.

One sample for every 10 acres is typical in Eastern Canada.

The service was launched last fall and has exploded globally, he said.

Tens of thousands of samples have already been taken in Eastern Canada. It won’t be available in Western Canada until at least Sept. 1 because the company is calibrating soil and creating maps in the region.

The original lab is in the National Research Council building in Montreal, but Guenther said the company intends to provide local service.

“Our goal here is to actually work with the local agronomy companies and set them up to install machines locally,” he said.

“The Laserag machine is the size of basically a large microwave, so it doesn’t need the same amount of space as if you were building a traditional lab.”

The cost will depend on how the local partners decide to market the service. For example, it could be per sample cup or per acre.

Guenther said response from farmers at the Regina show was positive because the process in-volves less soil, is transparent and uses GPS for traceability.

Logiag provides postage-paid boxes for the samples to be shipped through the post office.

“Soil analysis has been done the same way for the last 30 years, essentially, so this is something that’s really going to turn the industry on its head, we believe,” Guenther said.

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