Tools for getting a better read on soil health
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Tools for getting a better read on soil health

Visitors to an ONFARM field day event last fall check out the The Mobile Soil Technology Suite. [Submitted]

Everyone can get a front-row seat when it comes to learning about soil health in Ontario thanks to some new equipment made available by the province.

The Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, with the help of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, designed and purchased new technology to help as many people as possible learn about soil health.

They call it the Mobile Soil Technology Suite, or MSTS for short. It has two components which are transported on trailers, including: an all-weather, high resolution LED screen measuring two metres by three metres, with an audio system, and a mobile soil health lab to do in-field demonstrations and research.

Together, with the large screen and the lab, a presenter can show close-up images and real-time videos demonstrating soil in the field to many people at once. Historically, showing soil in a field to many people at once is logistically difficult, says Tracey  Ryan, the applied research coordinator for the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association.

Ryan explains that soil demonstrations typically involve a soil pit, which is a hole dug about five feet deep and two feet wide. It’s dug to show the profile of a plot of soil including top soil, the root zone, compaction layer and mineral soil, and visible organisms living in the soil, among other properties. But showing a large group of people different aspects of soil in a five-foot pit is difficult to do.

The Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) is focused on sharing knowledge among farming peers in the province. To do this, they conduct many events, but when it comes to teaching about soil health, this often includes people crowding around a soil pit and most of them not being able to hear or see what the presenter is demonstrating.

“At on-farm demonstrations, most of the people attending won’t be able to see what’s being pointed out,” said Ryan.

She says the goal of the MSTS is to “allow more people to participate and learn about improved practices to improve soil health.”

With the large mobile screen and mobile soil lab, people can see exactly what is being demonstrated. Viewers can see very close-up shots of the soil, maybe zoom in on wormholes or roots, she said.

The lab is equipped with a variety of equipment to do real-time testing of a site’s soil health, and all participants can see the results in real-time video projected on the screen. Any video or photos created with the unit can also be shared more widely via video or photo sharing platforms on the internet.

The unit was bought by the OSCIA with the help of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs in 2021. It’s powered with a generator so that it can go anywhere and not rely on external power, and it also includes portable weigh scales so that farmers can see the weight of their equipment and learn about the proper tire inflation levels to minimize compaction on their land and save fuel.

“Every time you drive equipment over a field, it is causing compaction,” said Ryan.

The unit is on display and running demonstrations at a soil health event on Thursday (July 21) at the Grand River Raceway in Elora, hosted by the Wellington Soil and Crop Improvement Association, the Grand River Agricultural Society and Our Food Future Guelph-Wellington.

“There is growing recognition across Ontario, Canada and internationally on the need to improve soil health,” said Ryan.

Soil is composed of minerals, organic matter and space taken up by air and water. Ideal soil should include: 45 per cent minerals (gravel, sand, silt, clay), five percent organic matter, 25 per cent air and 25 per cent water, according to OMAFRA. The space taken up by water and air gives plants and the organisms that live in soil room to breathe.

Balanced and healthy soil, with a healthy ecosystem of visible and microscopic organisms, is better able to withstand drought or flooding events, provide better returns to crop inputs, resist degradation, store carbon, remove pollutants and protect groundwater, according to OMAFRA.

Two main concerns many farmers have about soil health are erosion and compaction. Erosion is the stripping of layers of soil by wind or flooding and rain events. Compaction happens when layers of soil are repeatedly pressed, usually by equipment, and the soil becomes hardened and less able to support life.

Unhealthy soil is dependent on inputs to replenish nutrients to support the growth of plants. External inputs are expensive to apply, and can runoff into nearby water courses where they end up in larger bodies of water and cause algal blooms which degrade marine environments.

For farmers, constantly applying inputs to soil is very expensive, especially if these added nutrients are washed or blown away and don’t actually stay in the soil.

To increase soil health, farmers can use a few techniques, like rotating what they grow on their fields, tilling the fields less and keeping the ground covered with a crop as much as possible.

“Soil is foundational,” said Ryan. “Our attention needs to be on these foundational pieces as we move to help producers protect the most important part of their farm,” she said.

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