Soil moisture sensors, properly installed and maintained, may pay for themselves in the first year, according to a University of Georgia Extension county water educator.
David Hall, who also farms, said moisture sensors "are worth the investment." Hall explained sensor advantages during the recent National Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference in Memphis, Tenn.
He says some farmers may be reluctant to add soil moisture sensors to their irrigation management program. "I believe in a lot of the old folks' thinking," Hall says. "I also embrace 'feasible technology.' I believe in taking a few risks and using new technology."
He says the best reason to adopt irrigation management methods is to see a return on investment. "Irrigation is a good choice, a sustainable practice that helps farmers stay in business."
Taking full advantage of that system, however, requires management. "Farmers might wonder if they could have waited a day or two to irrigate, for instance."
Producers have used several methods to schedule irrigation, Hall says. The checkbook method, knowing what's available "in the bank," may be helpful but "doesn't account for atmospheric conditions."
He also notes that producers may water more than necessary. "In some years, we've seen dryland acreage yield better than irrigated. Monitoring soil moisture with probes seems logical to prevent watering too much or not enough."
He says one trial shows that in the first year with soil moisture sensors cotton yields increased by 150 to 200 pounds per acre.
Hall looks at the cost of the system for a field slightly more than 100 acres. The base costs $450. Three sensors at $525 each, total $1,575. A data plan, $25 a month for seven months, is $175. Total for the system is $2,200.
He says producers will replace sensors about every three to four years. He figures at $16.24 per acre, sensors "should pay for themselves in the first year."
He estimates increased corn yield at 4 bushels per acre, cotton at 23 pounds and 82 more pounds of peanuts will pay for the system. Producers also may save on irrigation costs.
"The University of Georgia estimates a $40 to $60 per acre increase in revenue with moisture sensors," Hall says. "And they may reduce irrigation applications. It's easy to see a return on investment."
Hall says producers help themselves by understanding several key factors.
• Know your soils, understand how they react.
• Assess your water supply.
• Make certain the pivot works properly where you place the sensors.
• Time is important.
• Install the units correctly.
• Monitor and react to the data.
• Trust the system. If you doubt, dig and investigate.
• Watch weather trends and soil temperatures. Updates are available every two hours to assist in anticipating irrigation and timing the next watering event.
• The soil type entered into the data bank suggests when to initiate irrigation.
• Know the soil moisture holding capacity to know how much water to apply.
• NEVER GET BEHIND.
Hall recommends producers who are interested in adding soil moisture sensors should "do the homework. Talk to an irrigation specialist, industry representative or a farmer who is using sensors. Trust it and use some kind of irrigation scheduling system."
Hall says farmers have opportunities to adapt and to adopt. "They adapt because they have to. They adopt because they want to. They choose to do something that will benefit them — irrigation or scouting, for instance."
Installing moisture sensors, he says, offers farmers an opportunity to adopt technology that improves profit potential and conserves water.