Perhaps it’s time to give VRT a second look

Soil tests provide valuable information, variable-rate technology (VRT) can help you manage that

A typical example of a SWAT map showing multiple layers of field data including soil, water and topography, providing producers with a visual picture of variable field conditions – which helps farmers better manage crop inputs to optimize production.

Investing in detailed soil test analysis this fall will help Prairie farmers know the level of nutrients available as they plan the 2022 cropping season, says a Saskatchewan-based agronomist. 

A soil analysis is valuable in any year, but particularly after drought conditions, says Cory Willness with CropPro Consulting headquartered at Naicam, Sask. He says having a soil analysis made sometime between this fall and the next seeding season can provide valuable planning information. 

“There is a good chance in a year like the 2021 growing season you applied more nutrients than the crop required,” says Willness. “And particularly at a time when fertilizer prices are high, it is good to know the level of nutrients in the soil. Is there 20, 40 or 80 pounds of residual nitrogen? If nitrogen is 75 cents per pound, knowing what’s in the soil might help you save on fertilizer dollars.”

Willness says ideally the soil sample should be taken as close to seeding time as possible, but if you’re planning to do the whole farm, for example, it may not be logistically possible to collect samples from every field and have them analyzed before heading to the field with the air drill. 

“Taking samples this fall, particularly in a year like this, it is unlikely the soil analysis will change much between fall and seeding time,” he says, noting that unless it rains, losses due to leaching or denitrification will be minimal.

Cory Willness, president of CropPro Consulting, says in a year when crop input prices are high, it is particularly helpful to know the level of nutrients in the soil at the end of the growing season. photo: CropPro Consulting

What about precision farming?

Willness also encourages producers to consider applying precision farming technology to their operations. The concept behind precision agriculture is to place nutrients where they will do the most good. Again, heading into a fall with dry soil conditions and higher fertilizer prices, efficiency is key. What will growing conditions be like next spring? How do you manage fertilizer application and rates to get the biggest bang for the buck?  

Using precision farming tools such as variable-rate technology (VRT) to apply fertilizer and other inputs is all about increasing production efficiency. CropPro, as one of the pioneers in precision farming services, was the first company to offer clients SWAT maps as a more accurate means of determining different production zones in farm fields.  

SWAT maps, which stands for soil, water and topography (SWAT) maps, don’t rely on yield data and satellite imagery of vegetation to determine those production zones. Fields are scanned by a device known as a SWAT Box — hardware used to collect soil electrical conductivity data — which produces multiple layers of field data including soil, water and topography. That data can be processed to produce a visual multicoloured map of each field clearly showing variability in soil conditions. The field scan is also followed up by ground truthing. 

“SWAT maps are the foundation of all variable-rate fertilizer and seed applications and enable growers to better understand field variability in order to optimize crop inputs and profitability,” says Willness. 

“Precision farming has come a long way in the last few years. Some of the earlier stuff really didn’t work that well. So, we urge producers to do their homework, and have a closer look at the services available today.” Just about all field equipment these days is VRT-ready.

Soil sampling equipment in one of the CropPro trucks. Soil tests this fall are showing wide variability in the amount of nutrients left in the soil. For example, where producers might normally expect 30 pounds of residual nitrogen, due to the dry growing conditions some areas are showing up to 80 pounds. It not only varies from region to region, but field to field and even within fields, which emphasizes the value of soil testing. photo: CropPro Consulting

CropPro precision farming specialists are more than willing to ease producers new to VRT into use of the technology starting with just a few fields or right up to the whole farm. 

SWAT map fees range from $10 to $12 per acre the first year and then drop to a range of $3 to $4.50 per acre in subsequent years, depending on the number of acres. More information on the services and pricing are available on the company website at croppro.ca

Willness says once farmers have tried VRT, they stick with it. Some of the key benefits to growers include the following:

  • To optimize crop inputs and better manage the production variability in each field.
  • To even out crop staging and maturity, which is a huge benefit when applying herbicides and fungicides; it also improves crop standability and often translates into higher quality crops.
  • Boosts a return on investment by allocating nutrients to where they are needed the most.
  • Generates short- and long-term improvements to farm productivity, profitability and sustainability.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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