Soil mapping technology a big step forward

TIM CRONSHAW
Last updated 05:00 05/07/2014
Smart Ag Solutions general manager Seaun Lovell.
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GETTING THE DIRT: Smart Ag Solutions general manager Seaun Lovell shows the discs which pass electric currents to map soils. The machine was imported by Canterbury cropping farmers.

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Four South Canterbury cropping farmers were so smitten with the precision of a soil sampling machine that they brought it back with them from the United States.

The Veris MSP3 3150 was imported by Colin Hurst and Hugh Wigley, who farm at Makikihi, in Waimate, and Michael Tayler and Nick Ward, from Winchester.

Commonly used in the big corn belts of the US since 2003, the technology is new to New Zealand, with only one other machine here.

The $70,000 machine is towed behind a tractor, and uses electrical conductivity to map paddocks for soil texture, and infrared measurement to detect organic matter, while constantly sampling soils for their Ph levels.

The data has allowed the South Canterbury quartet to fine-tune their irrigation and spread fertiliser and lime more accurately, reducing costs and limiting fertiliser runoff.

They have formed a company, Smart Ag Solutions, and are offering the technology to other farmers.

The arable farmers say the precision soil sampling is a step up from grid sampling, which involves manually taking core samples and inputting the results into hand-held GPS devices for each square hectare.

The new machine is expected to be useful for managing pastures on both dairy and livestock farms.

"We had a 40-hectare paddock, and would have put 200 tonnes of lime on it after a conventional soil test," Wigley said.

"After running the Veris machine, we only had to put 120 tonnes of lime, and that's a saving of 80 tonnes at $50 a tonne, so that's $4000 in savings - and we made sure we didn't over- or under-lime parts of the paddock."

Wigley plans to use the mapping technology for growing next season's Ph-sensitive barley.

He said more accurate soil readings would also help to improve precision irrigation and spreading effluent using centre pivots.

The machine readings are backed up by analysis from Ravensdown's laboratory in Napier.

Discs on the machine measure soil texture differences to one metre, reading the responses to electric currents, which pass through heavy soils easier than stony soils, and logging the differences with GPS.

About 20 to 25 Ph samples are taken per hectare to give farmers a better idea of the differences in soil acidity in a paddock and tell them the exact amount of lime they need to apply to different areas.

Tayler was on a Nuffield scholarship at a precision agriculture conference two years ago when he met the Lund family, whose company makes the Veris. A later talk at a Federated Farmers conference caught the attention of the other three farmers.

Hurst went to Kansas to spend a day with the Lunds, and the farmers imported the machine in February.

They have hired Seaun Lovell as general manager of the company. Lovell spent 22 years in the British Army's Royal Corps of Signals as a tactical forward air controller, calling in fast jets, ground attack helicopters and artillery.

"We did six weeks of trialling on the directors' farms and have been doing commercial work all over Canterbury, with good results," Lovell said.

"Clients had been told to put five tonnes [of lime] across the hectare from a single soil sample, whereas we have mapped their farm with precision mapping and they didn't put any lime on. On other farms, we have seen huge variability in Ph and soil textures in paddocks."

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The farmers plan to take the machine to major field days and work with fertiliser companies to offer its services.

- The Press

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