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05.10.2018 - Wolfgang Rudolph (Send email to Wolfgang Rudolph)

Soil data as basis for intelligent plant cultivation

Soil data as basis for intelligent plant cultivation

Sensors on agricultural machinery that record and evaluate the condition of the arable land online - i.e. during the run - are announced from time to time. So far no technology has made a breakthrough into practice in this field. However, interest in such systems is growing. After all, reliable and robust soil sensor technology is regarded by crop cultivation experts and agricultural machinery manufacturers alike as an indispensable tool for developing modern cultivation methods. With technological progress, especially in the rapid processing of large amounts of data, the conditions for the practical use of such sensor systems are improving enormously.

Results of the innovation forum presented

Last autumn a two-day conference was held at the Institute for Construction and Agricultural Machinery Technology (IBL) at Cologne University of Technology. The event, which was organized with the assistance of the VDI Colloquium on Soil Preparation and which was attended by around 100 participants from all over Germany, marked the conclusion of the innovation forum "Sensor-based Biosphere Monitoring - SeBiMo", which was funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The declared aim of the initiative was to find technological solutions for effective and easy-to-use soil and plant sensor technology, the information from which is available to farmers in real time.

Exploration of soil requires a holistic approach

For more than a year, sensor technology specialists from around 40 companies, farms and research institutions - including Agricon - have been working on this topic. The consensus was that soil space exploration requires a holistic approach that takes into account the parameters of plants. This is because the height of the stand, the amount of weeds, the water content or the nutrient supply of arable crops act as living soil sensors. The experts defined soil parameters relevant to agriculture as soil moisture, the water actually available for the roots (usable field capacity), soil type, humus content, pH value, basic nutrients, root penetration, structural damage and cation exchange capacity. In addition, the aspect of marketing was included. According to the experts, statements on the health status of the arable soil, as reflected in the humus content, for example, are becoming increasingly important in improving the image of agriculture. Of the available sensor technologies, electromagnetic and optical methods offer the broadest range of applications. 

Soil fertility can be managed sub-area specifically

In his presentation, Dr. Martin Schneider, Head of Product Management at Agricon, highlighted the challenges from the perspective of a service provider. The company, which is active throughout Europe, supports more than 2,000 farms and has used more than 800 Yara N-Sensoren® for needs-based dosage in fertilization and crop protection. Data has so far been collected on one million hectares for area mapping. "Sub-area-specific management of soil fertility based on nutrient content is already available in practice today," says Schneider. It is based on the intelligent linking of largely automated process steps.

The digital basic fertilization system from Agricon

At the beginning there is always the data collection by means of electromagnetic measuring methods and the taking of samples for analysis in the laboratory. For soil sampling Agricon developed a platform with which it is possible to compile mixed samples from 15 to 20 individual samples during the crossing without stopping.


The analysis results are entered into the information processing system agriPORT and visualized there. On this basis, the farmer has application maps calculated for each plot according to the requirements of the subplots, taking into account his agronomic objectives.


Finally, the device control on the machine ensures that the fertilizer spreader applies the appropriate amount of fertilizer or organic material with the appropriate precision to the area. "If this system is applied consistently, significant increases in yield and better continuity of harvest results are possible. Nevertheless, we see a need for further development," says Schneider. This concerns in particular a smaller-scale recording of the pH value and the nutrients available in the soil, but also of the humus content and the type of soil.

Collecting and evaluating data on a smaller scale

The crop expert referred to a number of field trials in this context. On the one hand, they had shown that, for example, the pH value and phosphorus content of arable land sometimes varies over a distance of a few metres. The differences in humus content and soil type were also often so small that the grid for the mixed samples of 3 ha, which is common in soil sampling, could not be measured with the necessary accuracy. On the other hand, all these factors would influence the nutrient uptake of the plants and thus the fertilizer requirement. Dr Schneider announced that in the near future, a device developed in cooperation with the Kurt-Schwabe Institute will be available that determines the pH value as the basis for basic fertilization directly during soil sampling using the Agricon platform. "By linking such small-scale information, patterns can be derived that broaden our understanding of the interrelationships in the soil that influence yield and enable us to make region-specific cultivation recommendations," says the Agricon manager, looking ahead.

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