Satellite technology will map soil moisture and help

ABC Rural
Michael Cavanagh

Through "radical by-pass surgery," Australia's "clapped out" soils could result in a radical lift in production according to a leading soil scientist.

To achieve this Sydney University Professor, Alex McBratney, would like to see a greater emphasis on soil moisture and use of it, when developing pastures for livestock or cropping.

Professor McBratney made the case during the Soil, Big Data and Future of Agriculture forum in Canberra, staged by the Sydney-based United States Studies Centre.

He said soil moisture research technology and science has become incredibly advanced.

"If you were doing this 50 years ago, you would get an aerial photo, put some lines on it, you would say 'I think it is here' and you would go out and check it,' he said.

"Then you would get out your colouring pencils and then colour in a map.

"These days what we do is take some lansart imagery, we take a digital land elevation model, we take some other data about the geology.

"We combine that all together and then we do some fancy algorithms, Latin hypercube sampling, and that tells us where there are key changes in the landscape."

He argued that using the technology is less labour intensive and it gives an idea of "how good or bad" the soil is.

Then appropriate action can be taken through some additional research.

"Old soil, rejuvenated cost-effectively, by big new data and applying the information, will deliver a radical productivity lift," he said.

"We can decide whether we need to do more sampling to make it better or not."

While the present technology makes it prohibitive for individual producers to make use of it, Professor McBratney argued that experience shows this can easily change.

"It may be that with any consumer product, if people buy a 100 of them, they cost $10,000. But if they buy 10,000 of them it costs $10.00."

Professor McBratney also believed by having prior knowledge of soil conditions in other parts of the world, such as the northern hemisphere, Australian farmers would be able to predict what shortages could occur the following season and plant accordingly.

The knowledge could also be used in the same way that weather forecasts look at rain possibilities, Professor McBratney would like to see soil moisture being talked about in the same manner.

"My dream is that in say five years we can say what is the state of our soil water moisture all over the landscapes to certain depths.

"Once we can do that and we have some modelling of crops and rainfall, then we can predict where we can have difficulties in one month, two months or in three months.

"Australian dry land agriculture is all about managing that uncertainty and moisture"

This article was originally published at ABC Rural

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