European soil sensor under evaluation in UK farm trials

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A unique soil station that is helping European farmers dramatically increase profitability by cutting fertiliser use is now being trialled at more than 20 UK farms.

The station, designed and produced by Estonian company Paul Tech, accurately measures nutrient movement through the soil to help growers make better decisions about when to apply fertiliser to optimise Nutrient Uptake Efficiency (NUE).

The technology has already enabled one Finish onion grower, AFC Uussaari, to cut nitrogen use by 70% while improving yield by 5%. This equates to an 82kg/h saving on fertiliser.

Owner Aleksi Uussaari said: “Having data from my soil was crucial in understanding how our actions affect the growing environment. We used data from Paul-Tech to determine the amount of unused nutrients in our soil, and when adding additional nutrients would be ineffective.”

It has also enabled Estonian arable business, Aru PM OÜ, to cut fertiliser use by 15% using the technology, saving the business a total of €56,000 annually.

The soil station is currently being trialled at more than 20 locations across the UK, including the West Midlands, Herefordshire, East Anglia, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire.

Paul-Tech CE Mikk Plakk expects the technology will enable British growers to gather the most detailed picture of the health of UK soils ever created.

“The technology is employed in a significant number of European countries across arable and vegetable growing operations, and is enabling farmers to get a much richer picture of how nitrogen and other nutrients move through the soil.

“Trialling the technology in the UK will provide British growers with unparalleled insights into what is going on under the surface of their fields, and will help build a national picture of soil health,” he said.

The system works by having sensors at two different depths in the soil which track the nutrients moving between them.

This can be plotted in real-time via an online dashboard which shows if the nutrients are leaching quickly away or are being held around the roots for plants to absorb.

“From this data, growers can understand what conditions maximise NUE and which cause nutrient leaching, and can adjust their fertiliser applications in line with that,” Mr Plakk added.

Former Soil Farmer of the Year Clive Bailye is one of the growers taking part in the trials. He described the soil sensor as ‘another tool in the box to help farmers make better decisions’.

He said: “We’re all aware of variable rate fertiliser applications and we get information on the quantities we need to apply but not the timings. Having something that can help with timing is new and that captures the imagination.

“The soil station will say ‘now is the optimum time to apply fertiliser’ or better still, it will tell you if the fertiliser you applied two weeks ago is still in the soil and you don’t need to apply more. That could save a significant amount of money.

“We made our first nitrogen application and it’s really interesting to see that going through the soil profile as you’ve got the advantage of the deep sensor too. I’m excited to see how it will evolve through the season and what that will mean for us.”

Brixworth Farming in Northamptonshire is another business trialling the soil sensor.

The business is committed to farming in a sustainable way that protects the wider environment, and it is in helping to optimise this that the soil sensor is being trialled.

MD Ian Matts said Brixworth Farming had been trying a range of different techniques over recent years, such as growing cover crops and catch crops to improve nutrient cycling through capturing used nitrogen following harvest, as well as different establishment techniques and growing wheat after different previous crops.

“We’re using two sensors this year and they’re both in winter wheat. What we want to do is identify the differences in both the amounts and timings of nitrogen release and availability between different previous crops and where catch crops have been utilised.

“We know, for example, there’s a big response to nitrogen following spring oats. We know this is different following beans, but not necessarily to what extent, or when. We are also keen to better understand these changes with a catch crop.

“We want to use the sensors to see if we can identify any differences between these conditions.”

Mr Matts noted it was early days as the sensors had only been in the ground a couple of months, but the early signs were good. “I think with any of these things the more information you build, the more confidence you have to use it. I’m optimistic about it because it can measure nitrate movement through the soil in real-time.”

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