Summer 2023


Jingyi Huang standing over soil samples in a classroom.
Photo by Michael P. King


When farmers make decisions about managing their crops, it’s extremely valuable to know how much water their soils can hold. With this information, they can properly gauge the levels of irrigation and nutrients they should apply — and when.

“But the current industry standard method used to measure this soil [characteristic], known as the soil water retention curve, or SWRC, is labor-intensive and slow,” explains Jingyi Huang, assistant professor of soil science. “Because of that, farmers often make a best guess based on experience.”

Fortunately, there’s a better option in the works.

Grow first introduced Huang and his imaging techniques in The Soil Doctor Is In (Spring 2020). Now, he and a team of researchers in the Department of Soil Science have developed a new approach for accurate and rapid estimation of SWRC using spectroscopy technologies. They have patented their invention through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

“Our invention enables farmers to scan their soils and get information related to water and nutrient management in one minute and make an immediate decision,” Huang says. “When people use this approach, they can get the same crop yield while reducing the costs of irrigation, fertilizer, and fuel. They also reduce the environmental footprint of agricultural production, such as groundwater contamination.”

The approach utilizes a field spectrometer — called a vis-NIRS — to scan a soil sample that yields an estimate of the soil’s water-holding capacity. Farmers can access the results via a smartphone app.

Huang’s co-inventors include Alfred Hartemink, professor and chair in the soil science department, and Zampela Pittaki-Chrysodonta, who worked as a postdoctoral researcher in Huang’s lab. The group is in discussions with spectroscopy companies interested in licensing the technology.

This article was posted in Changing Climate, Follow-Up, Food Systems, Healthy Ecosystems, Summer 2023 and tagged , , , , , , , .