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Smart Farming Techniques Being Tested to Optimize Fertilizer Use

Researchers at Lancaster University, UK, are conducting research designed to come up with smart farming techniques to help farmers increase their yields and decrease water pollution. Scientists are hoping to create a quick “same day” measurement of soil phosphorus availability, which would make it possible for farmers to make better decisions about the need of fertilizer use. The main impetus for this research came about following a discovery of Dr Shane Rothwell during his PhD studies at Lancaster University. He realized that, contrary to the common belief, pea and bean crops yields were occasionally decreased by as much as 30 percent when they were treated with recommended levels of lime. However, lime should normally improve the availability of plant nutrients.

Dr Rothwell showed that the reduced crop growth was linked to lower plant phosphorus content but the existing ways of measuring the phosphorus in soil were not taking notice of the problem. Thus, the development of a test to measure soil phosphorus availability more accurately would benefit farmers and the environment in that it would prevent undesirable waste and pollution. Although phosphorus is undoubtedly a vital plant nutrient, there is a growing concern that repeated applications of fertilizer to soil are bringing about phosphorus leakage and thus doing harm to the environment due to surface runoff and drainage below the crop root zone.

The new technique will combine two different technologies – the Diffusive Gradients in Thin Films technique that was developed by Professor Hao Zhang at Lancaster, and the portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometry. Lead scientist, Professor Hao Zhang of Lancaster University, commented that this research represented “an exciting opportunity to develop new technologies that will make a real difference to how farmers manage phosphorus fertilizer applications to their crops.”

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