Unlocking affordable soil moisture management for local farmers

August 26th, 2019, Published in Articles: PositionIT

The South African Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and Institute for Geodesy and Cartography (IGIK) in Poland recently signed a collaborative research agreement investigating the use of Sentinel-1 radar imagery for soil moisture management on farms as well as monitoring crop development and yield prediction.

The development of an affordable new system to locate hidden soil moisture will allow farmers to monitor and manage soil moisture that is available to their crops at a much lower cost. The radio detection and ranging (radar) system will set new standards for soil moisture management on farms. The electromagnetic system is used to detect the location and distance of an object from the point where the radar is placed. It operates in the ultra-high frequency and microwave range and works by radiating energy into space and monitoring the echo or reflected signal from the object.

Hand-held moisture probes (blue) consisting of two sensors attached to a unit are pushed into the soil (10 to 20 cm depth) to check the moisture level so that satellite-derived soil moisture data can be validated.

Current moisture probes on the market are expensive and one needs a whole network of them installed across the farm to adequately provide reliable soil moisture data. Data collection from these probes is time-consuming and expensive since it must be done every three months per probe. In contrast, the newly introduced satellite products cover the whole farm or region in one scan and in nearly real-time, with no risk of theft or vandalism.

The project is jointly funded by the European Space Agency (ESA) and National Research Foundation (NRF) in South Africa via bilateral funding instruments, and officially kicked-off in Poland in June 2019. The research will enhance precision agriculture and identify impending food shortages in both countries on an ongoing basis and in real-time.

The two research organisations believe that agriculture needs to pay heed to the fourth industrial revolution, with the integration of remote sensing data with socio-economic data and communication between decision-makers and remote sensing scientists requiring special attention. A cross-cutting global agricultural monitoring initiative of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) called GEOGLAM is currently attempting to address global, regional and national agricultural monitoring technologies (http://www.geoglam-crop-monitor.org/). Moreover, this new research by the ARC and IGIK addresses the UN’s broad Sustainable Development Goals.

Agriculture in South Africa and Poland experiences similar challenges. In South Africa, agricultural production is mainly constrained by water availability and a variable climate. Subsistence farmers are more vulnerable to changes in weather patterns as they lack resource reserves, information and/or access to usable soil moisture information for evidence-based decision-making. These challenges require sound, reliable, timely, accessible and useable information for optimising crop production under variable intra-seasonal conditions.

The team of South African and Polish scientists hope that the project outputs will assist in improving crop production and soil moisture management in both countries. They point out that the scientific exchange is also of benefit in addressing other research questions in each country. Some of the relationships supporting such international research collaboration go back more than ten years and there is an especially long history of cooperation between the ARC and IGIK.

Contact Dr George Chirima, ARC, Tel 012 310-2672, chirimaj@arc.agric.za

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