Good to the last drop

Apr 04, 2022


It’s no secret that precision ag has changed the face of agriculture over the past two decades. Technology that applies the variable, data-driven amounts of fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides to particular areas of a single crop field continues to cut waste and increase yields, thereby increasing profits in an industry with already razor-thin margins.
So, it’s only natural that similar technologies should follow for water usage. As the most basic, non-negotiable element of farming — with the possible exception of sunlight — water is becoming an increasingly precious commodity as the demand for it rises along with the world population.
According to sources like the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and energypedia.info, agriculture accounts for a whopping 70% of the planet’s freshwater withdrawals. Although the efficiency of traditional systems like center-pivot irrigation continues to improve, recent studies have shown that nearly half of the water conveyed through these systems is lost through evaporation and runoff or leaches through the soil without being utilized by the crop.
Caleb Kamerer, Ag Technology Manager with GreenPoint Ag, says that new IoT (Internet of Things) tools like soil moisture sensors are “changing the game” for today’s farmers. IoT refers to any electronic device containing sensors that transmit data automatically via the internet.
“Up until recently, a successful farmer has had to rely largely on experience and gut instinct when deciding when to irrigate and how much water to put out,” says Kamerer. “With the IoT technologies we have today, a lot of that guesswork can be removed.”
Kamerer explains that a soil moisture probe often looks like a section of white PVC pipe. Sometimes, the system’s electronics, sensors, and power supply are all housed within the probe, while other configurations have a cable and power supply as separate components. In either case, the probe contains sensors that measure everything from moisture and temperature to electrical conductivity.
“If a farmer is using only one probe in a field, that device should be located somewhere that is most representative of the entire location,” Kamerer says. “In other words, you wouldn’t want it in a bottom where water collects or on a hillside where water tends to drain off.”
Sensor data is often sent to the cloud via cellular modem and transmitted to an online platform where it is displayed to the farmer-user through a variety of visuals, often in real time, helping the farmer make data-driven decisions. Because the probes are also GPS enabled, weather data may also be incorporated into the user interface.
While the technology surrounding the probes may seem complicated, Kamerer says that the system is actually quite intuitive and easy to use.“It has very real-world applications,” he says. “For example, last season, I was contacted by a corn grower who was frustrated with over-watering even though he was following university guidelines. He felt like he was pulling his irrigation pond down to nothing, but his crop wasn’t really responding.”
After installing a probe and receiving the initial data, Kamerer says that it was clear that the grower was, in fact, overwatering.
 “Based on the data, we were able to cut his water usage by a third, and his corn crop took off like gangbusters,” says Kamerer. “By watering less, but at precisely the right time, you make the plant go searching for water by developing a stronger, deeper root system. That’s going to make for a much stronger, healthier plant.”
It’s not only about measuring the presence of water, he points out, but more specifically, discerning moisture in the plant’s active root zone.
“The user interface will show you when you need to water,” he says, noting that many systems also include a mobile app version. “This not only means that you’re providing water where the plant actually needs it, but that you’re also encouraging that root system to keep reaching for it.”
Kamerer reports that the grower was so impressed with the results of the probe that he moved it into a cotton field later, with plans to purchase additional for his other crops.
“It’s great if you have multiple crops that are on different schedules,” he says. “It can easily be pulled up and re-installed in another location. Although our technicians have equipment made specifically for installing and removing the probes, a farmer can do it themselves with a little training.”
Producers will also find that the purchase of probes might be partially subsidized by various environmental and agricultural sustainability programs, like those offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and others, depending on the county and state.
“Not only are you potentially saving your own water source by cutting back on pivot trips around the field, but you’re also conserving the resource in general,” Kamerer says. “As we move further toward the trends of sustainable and regenerative ag, we’re going to see tools like soil moisture sensors become more supported. Whether it’s water, fertilizer, or other inputs, anything we can do to produce more yield on fewer acres with less impact is a good thing.”
For more information about soil moisture sensors, contact the ag tech professionals at your local Co-op.

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