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Intelligent soil sampling saves time and money

25 July 2006

A new computer program which can sample soil quickly and effectively could revolutionise land management by making the sampling process more cost effective and ensuring more sustainable use of our soils.

Soil is a complex and irreplaceable natural resource which varies hugely locally and nationally. While farmers sample their soil to learn about its nutrient levels to help manage their land, soil quality must also be monitored at national or regional scale. With growing populations and stricter legislation, such environmental surveys are becoming increasingly important to ensure sustainable land management, but current sampling methods can be time consuming, costly and produce insufficient results.

However, the new ‘intelligent computer program’ looks set to change this by enabling soil sampling to be tailored to local conditions, allowing land managers to obtain high quality information without over or under sampling.

The program has been designed by researchers at Rothamsted Research, with funding from a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Industrial Partnership Award with the Home-Grown Cereals Authority.

Dr Murray Lark, head of the Environmetics group which developed the software, explained: “Our program learns about the variation of the soil as it samples, and is therefore able to generate a sampling scheme that is tailored to local conditions and ensures that the sampling effort is used to greatest effect. Our program rapidly identifies where variation in the soil is complex and many samples are needed or where less sampling is needed because there are large patches of contrasting soil, so samples can be further apart.”

The underlying concept behind the program is the variogram – a mathematical model of how soil varies across an area. As sampling begins, the computer program is ignorant of the variogram and uses data from the sampling to reduce the level of uncertainty and to direct where subsequent samples should be taken. As data accumulate, this uncertainty is reduced.
Once the program has a sufficiently robust model of the spatial variation within the area, a final phase of sampling points is identified to ensure that the resulting map of the soil will be sufficiently precise.

Both computer simulations and practical trials have shown that this adaptive sampling scheme can converge from no initial knowledge to a reliable map of how soil varies. When tested on real landscapes, the scheme has reduced the number of sampling sites needed without any loss of accuracy.

Professor Julia Goodfellow, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: “This new program is a real breakthrough in modern land management and highlights the important role of a multidisciplinary systems approach to bioscience. By combining theory, computer modelling and experiments, scientists are producing useful and easier to apply outputs, such as this soil sampling program, which will ultimately benefit the wider public.”

ENDS

Notes to editors

This research appears in the July 2006 edition of Business, the quarterly research highlights magazine of the BBSRC.

Dr Lark was head of the Environmetrics group at the former Silsoe Research Institute. In 2004, the group transferred to the newly formed Biomathematics and Bioinformatics Division at Rothamsted Research.

Rothamsted Research is one of seven BBSRC-sponsored Institutes.

Current soil sampling methods typically involve sampling on a grid, the intensity of the grid is usually determined by how much sampling can be afforded and so it is often only once the sampling is finished, that the land manager finds that the grid has been too sparse and so the findings are not accurate or that the grid has been too dense and so time and money wasted. The new computer program avoids this problem with an initial phase of sampling to identify the intensity with which the soil property must be mapped.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

Images

The adaptive sampling scheme being put through its paces in the field. A sensor records soil moisture and a GPS antenna on top of the probe records its position. Both sets of information are fed to the hand-held computer which analyses the data and determines the next sampling site. (236 KB)

Click on the thumbnail to view and download full-size image.

soil

Note that this image is protected by copyright law and may be used with acknowledgement of the Former Silsoe Research Institute.

External contact

Dr Murray Lark, Rothamsted Research

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Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

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