To maximize crop yields depends on optimizing nutrient management: applying the right product at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place. Since no field is perfectly consistent, the challenge lies in figuring out what precise nutrients are needed where.
Enter MobiLab, an easy-to-operate, portable lab that produces on-farm, lab-quality, soil and plant sap nutrient analysis. The results, which take about two hours from sampling to completion and cost a fraction of the price of conventional lab testing, allow farmers to make critical nutrient management decisions efficiently and quickly.
The MobiLab may be a tool that is a fit for your farm. Benefits include fast soil nutrient analysis, cost savings when compared with traditional soil lab tests and the ability to take advantage of fertilizer optimization, which could lead to even more savings.
“In my day, we used to rely on government meteorology stations for our on-farm weather information. You don’t have to do that anymore: now we have precise, in-field weather stations and other IoT (Internet of Things) devices. The MobiLab is the same. This is taking lab technology and bringing it right to the farm or agronomy shop,” says Guy Ash, iMetos Canada’s global training and key accounts manager.
How it works
The MobiLab is built around a microfluidic chip: a flat, couple-inch square chip that uses an electric field to separate and then measure the concentration of different nutrient ions. The high-tech physics and chemistry involved, perfected for medical applications, precisely calculates the amounts of various key macro- and micro-nutrients in soil or sap. Also, because the testing can occur almost immediately after sampling, results are tied to actual in-field soil moisture.
The first version of the MobiLab, unveiled in 2017, measured only nitrate concentration. In 2019, an updated MobiLab added ammonia, sodium, chlorine, potassium and sulphate to the list of testable nutrients. The newest version of the MobiLab, rolled out in 2020, now also tests for calcium and magnesium. In 2021, iMetos anticipates unveiling a version that includes capacity for copper, iron, zinc, aluminum and boron.
Soil testing using the MobiLab is a precise but not complicated process. The MobiLab includes all the necessary equipment and instructions to take a sample in the field, sieve the sample to remove large particles and debris, centrifuge the soil with a provided buffer solution, then inject the final solution into the microfluidic chip. For plant sap, it is enough to squeeze the petiole of a given plant through a garlic press and collect the droplets.
The MobiLab itself plugs into a computer and automatically populates an included test results data analysis program, providing a detailed, fully interpreted, nutrient analysis in minutes.
Each sample is GPS-linked, allowing nutrient testing results to be pinpointed to a precise location in the field. This data can then be linked to precision mapping programs for a high-resolution nutrient map of your field, and can be inputted into precision application software now available onboard fertilizer spreaders, sprayers, etc.
All data is stored in iMetos’ FieldClimate cloud storage to ensure easy and safe info accessibility over the long term.
“Farmers need to minimize overfertilization but still meet the needs of their crop. They can determine what their crop needs by conventional lab measurements, but that takes two to four days before your results are delivered, and the cost means you might do fewer samples,” says Ash. “The MobiLab’s goal is resource efficiency and saving farmers money.”
Where the real savings are
A MobiLab is priced at approximately $5000, software and hardware included. Based on 100 samples per year over five years, the cost works out to approximately $10 per sample. Including staff or your time (based on a $30 per hour wage), iMetos calculates the total cost per sample at $17.30, less than one-quarter the cost of a traditional soil lab test.
However, the real money is in the fertilizer optimization, says Ash.
“In Europe, they talk about a 40 per cent savings on fertilizer application (when a producer shifts to precision application based on geo-referenced soil testing). Here, it could be even larger because they already do more micromanagement there.”
With land and inputs as costly as they are, farm business survival depends on optimizing productivity. Also, maintaining the public’s confidence is a major and growing concern: from both an environmental and social standpoint, farmers can’t afford overfertilization that leads to run-off and leaching. Managing soil testing on-farm could be a step in the right direction for large-scale and leading-edge farms.
For more information or to purchase a MobiLab, visit metoscanada.ca/products/.