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Soil scans improve farming profitability in Lakeland

An ATV is pulling a small trailer through the inter-rows of bananas at Red Valley in Lakeland. While this may not be an unusual site on a Lakeland banana farm, it is what’s happening under the soil that the trailer travels over, which is a new technology to the area.

Tony Crowley is the Director/Owner of Farmacist, a company that specialises in EC and EM mapping. EC, (electro-conductivity) mapping identifies the different soil zones in a paddock which enables farmers to identify specific sites for soil samples, and helps to produce a more productive farm design.

Tony is a leader in EC mapping in Australia, and introduced the technology to central and northern Queensland around 17 years ago.

The first machines were imported in 2000, and the company has since covered over 50,000 hectares in Queensland and northern New South Wales.

“I am an agronomist by trade, and needed an accurate GPS for mapping. So I worked with leading engineers to set up my first machine in 2000. I have maintained close relationships with those engineers and we are regularly updating the machines as new technology becomes available” Tony said.

The mapping already underway at Red Valley is an example of the new technology.

The machine being used is the EM38-MK2 which uses Electro Magnetic Induction (EMI) to measure conductivity by shooting an electro-magnetic impulse into the soil.

“It’s an electric impulse which recognises the difference between sand and clay to give you a different soil zone” Tony said.

Tony started mapping Cape York farms last year at Kureen Farming and at Olive Vale and Fairview stations.

“The current scale of soil mapping for Cape York is [RM1] too broad to represent soil variation on an individual farm. EC Mapping provides much finer detail.

“This time we are mapping five farms in Lakeland. We are doing 12 metre swaths in the banana paddocks, which will allow us to cover more area.

“The more area you cover with each pass, the cheaper it is. On average if you do a six metre swath you will cover 40 hectares per day, 12 metres covers between 80 to 100 hectares and a 20 metre swath might cover between 300 to 500 hectares a day.

“Swath size is relative to what kind of country you are on and how you travel. We are travelling over the country with a side-by-side ATV towing a small trailer, so rougher ground limits what you can do in a day” Tony said.

Once the on-farm mapping is complete the maps will be supplied to the farmers through Google Earth and as a physical map. Farmers can then put the GPS ready maps on their phones and walk out in the field to find that zone themselves. The maps show a different colour scheme for the different soil type that is identified. 

“They get two layers, a deep and shallow layer. If they have been farming for a long time the 0-500 mm layer is the layer that the farmer has had some inputs to - some sort of cultural practice that can disrupt that layer” Tony said.

“The 0-900 mm or 0-1 metre is a composite layer and not many farmers get down to that depth. That layer is a look at the natural terrain and the natural soil types across the farms. It’s the one we use the most – the deeper layer – which is an average of 0-1 m. It gives a snapshot of the whole profile” he explained.

Tony said that the base layer that EM Mapping provided was one of the major building blocks for any farm enterprise.

“EM Mapping provides a quick snapshot of possible profiles of soil and possible types of soil to give you an understanding of how you design a farm or how you can make an old farm more productive in the long term” Tony said.

“It shows you where you can build your farming enterprise no matter what it is” he said.

“Where the farmer is setting up high value irrigation crop like bananas – they can find out what the potential (better or worse) water holding capacity of the soil is. For example, well-drained soil is needed for bananas, so the EM map could be used to identify the most suitable soils for that crop.

“Farm management decisions can be improved by understanding the range of soil types of that farm. It can be a minimalistic approach where you are saving money on fertilizer through targeted soils tests, or identifying variable rates of lime, or where you locate your packing sheds.

“Farmers can vary their water rates and water regimes, or set sprinkler systems and underground watering systems by understanding the different soil types on their farm.

So what do the farmers think?

Peter Inderbitzin Jr from Red Valley and Swiss Farms said that while it was the first time for trialling EM Mapping, he was having both family farms mapped during Tony’s visit.

“I heard about it from others, and we are looking forward to knowing exactly what soils we have, where they are, and how deep they go” Peter Junior said.

“We will use the mapping to inform our variable rate spreading, and to adjust our fertiliser inputs to suit soil types.

“We hope it will help us to refine what we do, and give us more efficient fertilising. We can give the trees exactly what they need. We are grateful to Cape York NRM for funding this work across Lakeland” Peter said.

For more information about EC and EM Mapping, contact Michael Goddard on 0498 760 022, or visit http://www.farmacist.com.au/soil-mapping.

This project is supported by Cape York NRM through funding through Australian Government's National Landcare Programme.

CYPLUS is 1:900,000 and Lakeland soil mapping may be 1:250,000 – Will suggested omitting this figure

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