Thursday, November 15, 2018

High-tech focus on farmers’ use of phosphorus

November 1, 2018 by  
Filed under Crops

Farmers’ approach to phosphate use will change dramatically over the next decade as the nutrient increasingly comes under the spotlight – and smart technology will be key in helping them do it.

Limited global supplies, increasing costs and ever-more legislation surrounding the permitted cadmium contents of fertilisers and water quality are creating a “perfect storm” of factors driving this change, says Martin Blackwell, a scientist at Rothamsted Research.

“Farmers have traditionally used a lot as an insurance policy because it was relatively cheap and easy to apply, but the equation is changing,” says the soil biogeochemist, based at the organisation’s North Wyke Farm Platform.

Dr Blackwell says this prophylactic approach will have to be change towards a more limited and targeted use. The farming industry needs to “get ahead of the problem now” with a big availability issue on the horizon of what is a critical nutrient.

“Phosphate is a finite resource and there will come a point when we simply run out of it. The market is already unpredictable. There were massive price fluctuations in 2007 and prices spiked to about £800/t.”

Real-time testing

There is also a political dimension.

“Western Sahara has huge reserves, but the political situation is volatile. Much of the phosphate mined in this region has high levels of cadmium – and new rules on permitted concentrations will mean it has to be processed prior to use as a fertiliser, increasing costs.

“Rock phosphate from Russian has lower levels of this heavy metal, but trading relationships with Russia are fraught with uncertainty.”

The required shift will see more focus on using ‘optimum’ levels. “If there’s not enough already in the soil, adding a small amount can make a big difference to yields, but when you get over a certain threshold, you hit the law of diminishing marginal returns.”

This will mean harnessing the power of new tech and precision techniques – and one such exciting prospect is a piece of kit called ‘PhosField’, which a Rothamsted team at North Wyke is developing in conjunction with CleanGrow.

Part of the current problem limiting farmers’ ability to use the nutrient effectively, they say, is the “slow and inefficient” testing methods – so they’re creating a portable measuring device which could make real-time, in-the-field testing a reality for growers.

Complex chemistry

One factor that has slowed developments in this area is the complex chemistry surrounding how phosphorus becomes available in soil, making measuring it difficult, points out CleanGrow’s co-founder Dr Roy O’Mahony.

“Current methods involve sending soil samples to labs or tricky wet chemistry kits not suitable for everyday use. Indeed, across Europe, many different soil tests are used.

“But in future, it won’t solely be trained analytical chemists who are able to measure ions and nutrients. Technology is making this a possibility for anyone,” says Dr O’Mahony.

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