Soil testing for better crop yields


March 30th, 2015

Arriving at Badikhel, we were confronted with a group of ladies, queuing patiently, and brandishing small bags. Inside each bag was a shovel worth of soil. It wasn’t what I was expecting. Badikhel is an information and resource centre, used by the local community to gain knowledge of agricultural practices and technologies which can help them to improve productivity and incomes on their small farms.  (Favourite technologies include the cow lollipop – a cheap, locally appropriate, easy to make, mineral block that helps to keep cattle healthy. )

planting in NepalBut, today a very practical activity was taking place – soil testing. The soil pH determines the availability of almost all essential plant nutrients. And if the pH is not right, plants won’t be able to access the nutrients they need for growth and ultimately a healthy yield for the farmer.

pH testing is  a very simple procedure, as you might remember from school chemistry lessons. Today, instead of the litmus paper I used at school, a gadget with an electronic reading was dipped into the soil and water solution. This simple test, which took seconds to complete, provided information that could transform the outcome of year’s harvest.

That one piece of data is absolutely central to a series of decisions and actions that a farmer can take to ensure healthy soil and a healthy crop. And yet, despite the work of Practical Answers here at Badikhel and other centres around Nepal, far from all farmers have access to this basic, but essential information.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????In the UK meanwhile, new precision-farming techniques are now commonplace in family as well as commercial farms. Sampling is carried out across the field– to a level of detail of mere centimetres. This data is fed into a geographical information system that interprets the structure and content of the soil and calculates the inputs required to achieve optimum conditions for growth.  With this information, a GPS-guided tractor and equipment can vary the quantity of the input applied (let’s say fertiliser) automatically as it moves across the field.  Apart from turning corners the farmers no longer even need to drive the tractor (did you notice tramlines are a lot more straight these days?).   There’s no denying this brings efficiency savings that are good for the farmer and good for the environment, as excess chemical applications are kept to a minimum.

Surely making a pH test available to the millions of smallholder farmers who produce the bulk of the world’s food, is at least as good an investment.

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