Soil health sensor project largest in North America

A new $2-million soil health research project aims to figure out the impact of different cropping systems on the environment. Research will also be conducted on crop productivity relating to soil health.

The result should be new knowledge on productivity of traditional cropping systems versus those with cover crops.

The project, at the new Soil Health Interpretive Centre at the University of Guelph’s Elora Research Station, makes use of 18 lysimeters, the largest installation of its kind in North America.

A lysimeter measures soil water balance, drainage and emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.

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The project is managed under the School of Environmental Science at the university and was installed over last summer and started sending data to the university researchers in the fall.

As with any soil project, the above ground structures aren’t that impressive. There are 18 circles about a metre wide, with a cement service well at the centre of each group of six. Inside the wells are the controls and collection systems for the many experiments on soil and water quality expected to be conducted at the site.

But below the surface, each lysimeter is home to five sensors at five different depths. The project will record 747 readings from the lysimeters every few minutes. Data and water collected flow through tubes into the service wells, where researchers will spend time collecting and monitoring samples and data. Much of the data will be accessible remotely from computers at the university in nearby Guelph.

Dr. Claudia Wagner-Riddle speaks to government, industry and farmers at the launch of the University of Guelph’s lysimeter project. Photo: John Greig

Dr. Claudia Wagner-Riddle speaks to government, industry and farmers at the launch of the University of Guelph’s lysimeter project. Photo: John Greig

Dr. Claudia Wagner-Riddle, who is leading the large team of researchers at the university, says they know that soil health is important, but wanted to be able to quantify its value.

“Some of the research questions we are interested in include soil health, but more importantly, how soil health impacts water quality and factors like greenhouse gas emissions,” Wagner-Riddle said at the recent launch of the new Soil Health Interpretive Centre and the lysimeter project.

“We’re interested in quantifying what that benefit is. If you grow cover crops over five years and your soil quality improves, we think there’s a big impact on the soil ecosystem services.”

Those impacts can be greater food production, but also improved water quality and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

For farmers, the research could help determine the value of different cropping systems in reducing environmental impacts. Researchers also expect to be able to track fertilizers and water through the lysimeters to better understand their activity in different weather events.

“We know that farmers have soil health and conservation in mind,” says Wagner-Riddle. The project will put numbers to the effects of different production systems on water retension or carbon sequestration.

“There is also an aspect related to crop productivity. We are also looking at not just what happens in soil, but how plants are growing and taking up water.”

The Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) is a supporter of the project.

“The number one research priority for OSCIA is soil health,” said Gord Green, an Oxford County farmer and OSCIA president. “The research coming out of this research centre will be important to Ontario farmers.”

Each lysimeter is a barrel that is packed with one square metre of soil. There were two different types of soils extracted for the project, one a sandy soil and one a clay soil. That gives the researchers two types of soils to use in experiments.

The weight of the soils is also measured by each lysimeter which helps with understanding rainfall and snowfall impacts. The system is designed to be extraordinarily precise, even to the point of the lysimeters shaking gently after a snowfall to avoid crusting which can skew the amount of moisture moving straight down through the lysimeter.

The project has received funding from a variety of sources which showcases the intense interest in soil health. Half of the $2 million funding to build the project came from the federal government Canadian Foundation for Innovation and half from the Ontario Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science. Operating funds came from Grain Farmers of Ontario, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs and the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

The new Soil Health Interpretive Centre which includes a building for instruction and visitors, is funded by OMAFRA, the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association and Hoskins Scientific, the company that supplied the equipment for the project.

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