Technology defines key measurements in determining soil health

From a young age, Jamie Herring was intrigued by the round areas of grass that were darker in color than the surrounding grass.

“My teacher told me they were fairy rings, which are caused by certain fungi buried in the soil,” he says. “There was something interesting going on in those areas, which stuck with me.”

That curiosity led the Illinois farmer, who holds a master’s degree in crop sciences, on a path to better understand the secrets that lie within the soil.

“Considering the high variability within each field, I wanted to be able to define the soil’s biology to know where to push inputs and where to hold off in order to maximize my profit per acre,” Herring says. “Current technology to measure the health of the soil relies mostly on soil sampling that costs about $40 per sample, which is followed by slow (48 to 72 hours) wet lab analysis.”

To better quantify his soil’s health, Herring developed a system that defines the soil’s biology on-the-go, in real time, creating a totally new data layer.

SnifferNeus

SnifferNeus is a mobile system that measures several volatiles (gases), which are known indicators of soil health. Attached to a coulter that creates a cavity as it moves through the soil, this self-calibrating system pulls out those gases that then go through a set of filters and sensors. A sample is taken every second, and the system runs around 300 measurements per acre.

As you turn around in the field, the self-cleaning, self-calibrating process takes place. Blowing ambient air back into the tubes to clean out the filters, the system is ready to go on the very next pass.

“Once you’ve cleaned out the tube, you can reset the whole system at normal ambient air positions for the gasses. Any change you then measure is relevant,” he says.

The electronics, along with the controls that alternate measurement via suction, and cleaning with forced air, are what create the system’s unique capabilities.

To ensure the data is reliable, the diameter of the air tubes is critical. “If your tube is too wide or too narrow, you change the parameters of the whole system,” Herring says. “The speed at which the air is aspired is also important because if the suction is too fast, a lot of junk goes into the filters and you’ll rapidly choke the system.”

Testing a theory

When Herring started his initiative 18 months ago, he had a hunch some volatiles might be relevant in measuring the health of the soil. In 2019, field trials revealed a very high correlation between the levels of these volatiles and yields. 

Defining how the amount of organic volatiles relates to the rate of nitrogen was the next step. “If we go through the range of CO2 measurements where nitrogen is very low, it pays to increase nitrogen,” he says. “On the other hand, there is a point where adding nitrogen to soil that has a high indicator gas level doesn’t really pay.”

In one trial, some specific areas of the field were identified where additional nitrogen could increase the net margin by $79 per acre with higher yields. “There were other areas in the same field where the same increase of nitrogen would not pay back in higher yield and would cause a $40-per-acre loss,” Herring says.

Data also indicated where higher density planting of soybeans would and would not pay off.

Based on what he is learning from the information being gathered, Herring is able to find the right combination of management practices and products to help him improve his soil health as quickly as possible.

“Once I could reliably define what was happening in the soil, I could then start to compare that data with other data on my fields to help me make better economic decisions on fertilizer and seeding rates,” he says.

Herring has filed for a patent on his invention, which he will continue to evaluate and validate. A company is being formed to commercialize the technology, and the plan is to have the first commercially available product in the market by 2021.

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