Open University soil tester addresses poor crop yields

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An acoustic method for measuring the strength of soil is being developed at the Open University (OU) to tackle the problem of poor crop yields.

The £680,000 project is hoping to use an acoustic-seismic tool for testing the resistance of soil for more effective modelling of wheat growth during water shortages.

Prof Keith Attenborough, who is leading the research, said: ‘Typically what happens when there is a drought is the soil becomes very strong and it’s much harder for plant roots to pass through it. So apart from the fact the crops are not getting water, they also can’t move in the soil… we want to develop a more effective way of monitoring this.’

Attenborough claims that existing methods for monitoring soil resistance are invasive and labour intensive. He proposes using a combination of sound measurements with laser-doppler readings to determine the speed at which acoustic waves travel inside the soil.

‘Reflection of sound in soil depends on forces between particles that can give us information on water content, soil structure and strength,’ he said. ‘Measuring these particle vibrations will help us understand how soil behaves in different environments.’

The acoustic technique currently takes around a day to collect results, but it is hoped that in the future results can be gathered almost instantaneously leading to the development of automated data acquisition and processing in the field.

Attenborough added that the work will be significant for increasing wheat productivity, which is needed to meet a predicted 50 per cent rise in food demand by 2030 as a result of global population growth, climate change and pressure on limited resources.

Project collaborators include Dr Richard Whalley at Rothamsted Research, Dr Bruce Grieve of the Syngenta Sensors Centre at Manchester University and Delta-T Devices.