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Small But Mighty

By Brianna Gratton

The use of digital technologies to increase efficiency, reduce costs and support good environmental stewardship by farmers has rapidly become the norm in certain parts of the world. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Western Canada where the application of such technologies is limited, placing agriculture and the environment in this region at a disadvantage. At the same time, the adoption of such technologies in Western Canada may be a challenge because agronomic conditions differ from other parts of the world where in-field sensor technologies such as these are developed and tested. To guarantee the successful use and wide adoption of such technologies in Western Canada requires independent, unbiased local testing. The Soil Nutrient Sensor validation project aims to test the performance and economic implications from using commercially available, wireless, soil nutrient sensor technologies at the Olds College Smart Farm. 

Sustainable nutrient management strategies, which aim to reduce nutrient loss to the environment and maximize uptake by crops, can help farmers improve productivity, save money on fertilizer costs and contribute to environmental health. These strategies can be as simple as applying the appropriate fertilizers for specific crop needs, lending numerous benefits to farmers such as greater crop yields, better bottom lines and healthier soils.

Soil nutrient content is a critical parameter that drives many management decisions throughout the year. Historically, measuring soil nutrient content requires sampling and lab analysis. One alternative is in-field, real-time soil nutrient sensors placed in management zones throughout the crop. Olds College is assessing the functionality, maintenance requirements and accuracy of the sensors on commercial farmland.

The parameters that this particular sensor measures includes soil moisture, salinity, and NPK at three different depths as well as aeration, respiration, air temperature, light and humidity. The probe communicates with the cloud via LoRa wireless technology and user data can be accessed on their dashboard or another platform via open API. Data and analytics are continually updated so farmers get a live look into the plant-available nutrients in their fields’ soils. With comprehensive soil data and access to the technology that collects it, farmers could more easily make informed management decisions throughout the season, reducing environmental impact while improving soil health, crop yield and profitability.

With this project, Olds College aimed to test the performance and ability of wireless soil sensor technologies to measure soil nutrient content instantly and accurately across a crop field in central Alberta. While doing so determines how easy, efficient, timely and reliable it is to use each wireless sensor technology compared to soil sampling, shipping samples and soil testing at a commercial laboratory before planting season begins. In addition, determining if knowledge of different soil nutrient concentrations in various parts of a crop field throughout the season results in improved fertilizer use, same or better crop yield and lower cropping costs.

Not all commercially available technologies are effective and reliable in meeting farming needs. This independent evaluation of multiple commercial digital soil nutrient sensor technologies by Olds College will be valuable to Alberta farmers who want to invest in such technologies. Within the first-year, challenges revolving around delivery timing, connectivity, operations logistics and battery life have been encountered, which can be a fairly common occurrence with such technologies. This is a multi-year project and although in-crop sensors are removed at harvest to avoid damage, there will be testing done over winter as well as re-installation after planting this coming spring.