Water Watch

November 26, 2013 06:40 PM
Water Watch

New technologies make it easier to manage soil moisture

The private technology sector has taken interest in tapping big data for soil moisture monitoring projects.

For example, an IBM project in south Georgia’s Flint River Basin—a "heavily irrigated agricultural powerhouse," showed that analysis of soil moisture could cut water usage by 15%, says IBM global agriculture leader Rick Morris.

"With better weather prediction and sensor technology, we can determine where and when farmers should irrigate and when they should hold back," Morris says.

Today, farmers should work on improving soil structure to increase  its water-holding capacity, explains Madhi Al-Kaisi, an Iowa State University agronomy professor. He points out that surface residue and cover crops are two ways to encourage better water infiltration.


The importance of knowing how much moisture your soil holds is nothing new. Simple yet effective soil moisture monitoring tools such as the Woodruff Method are still used widely today. For some western Corn Belt farmers, a piece of rebar might do the trick, Al-Kaisi notes.

"After it rains, a lot of western state irrigators who want to know if the soil profile is recharged take an iron rod and push it into the soil," he says. "Where the rod penetrates easily, it is at capacity. When it hits a dry area, it resists."

Thanks to big data solution providers and university research, soil moisture monitoring is about to get a high-tech face-lift. For instance, University of Missouri (MU) researchers are developing and beta testing several mobile optimized tools, including a crop water-use calculator.

Ray Massey, an MU Extension ag economist, says farmers are asking more questions about water use. He speculates the heightened interest comes from the severe 2012 drought, but Massey also notes that more farmers are adding irrigation pivots to maximize productivity. 

A Look West

When water becomes a significant limiting production factor and begins to be regulated, as it increasingly is in the West, farmers get innovative, says Patrick Boss with the Ag
Power & Water Users of Eastern Washington.

Allocations from the nearby Columbia River allow farmers in his area to grow a diversity of crops, despite the arid climate. These limits keep the spirit of invention alive, Boss says.

"Our farmers want to grow a superior crop, so soil moisture is monitored for a lot of reasons," he adds. "We use a lot of high-tech equipment from satellite imagery to moisture probes and variable-rate technology."

Other innovations include unique trellis setups in orchards, and occasionally farmers will even swap ground from year to year for unique rotation opportunities that keep their soil at peak structural and biological health.

Water runoff is increasingly unheard of with the advance of these tools as farmers move to capture every last drop, he says.

"Some of the motivation behind these practices comes from economics, but a lot of it is about good farming," he says.


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