Bump UP The Bottom Line

Research Shows Benefits Of Soil Moisture Monitoring Technology.
soil moisture in a south carolina cotton field
Clemson University researchers are exploring technology to help farmers irrigate more efficiently and increase net income — photo by Carroll Smith

A Clemson University irrigation specialist has found using soil moisture sensors in fields can increase average net income by almost 20%.

Jose Payero, assistant professor and irrigation specialist housed at the Edisto Research and Education Center, is conducting on-farm trials to show farmers how using soil moisture monitoring technology can help them irrigate more efficiently. Soil moisture sensors were installed in six fields with different soil types in Allendale, Barnwell, Hampton, Lexington and Orangeburg counties in South Carolina. Each field was planted with either cotton, peanuts or soybeans.

“Soil moisture sensors were installed in each sensor field, while no sensors were installed in the companion fields,” Payero says. “Based on agronomic and economic data collected, we found the increased net income ranged from $87.30 per acre to $641.19 per acre or 7.6% to 63.5%. The average increased net income for all the six farms was $202.28 per acre or 19.42%.”

The sensor fields were irrigated using center-pivot systems. Farmers followed their standard irrigation practices to irrigate companion fields.

The farmers were trained to irrigate the sensor fields based on the collected soil moisture data using a few simple guidelines. They also were guided through installing and using the app to monitor the soil moisture level on their cell phones.

Researcher-Developed Technology

The researchers use an irrigation scheduling tool called the Clemson Water Management System. It was developed by Payero and uses sensors to collect and transfer data over a wireless network.

During the trials, soil moisture sensors were installed at four depths — 6, 12, 18 and 24 inches. Hourly data was collected automatically through a custom-made Internet-based system, transmitting data to a cloud server using a cellular network.

Although the results are for just one year, Payero says they look promising. He and his team are continuing on-farm trials on six farms this season and another six in 2022 to see if the results hold.

“This easy-to-use, affordable soil moisture monitoring system will help growers enhance water-use efficiency and increase profits while substantially reducing water and energy use, erosion and leaching of chemicals such as pesticides and soil nutrients,” Payero says. “It also will help growers apply water at optimum rates where needed.”

Farmer Participation

Joe Oswald is a fourth-generation farmer at JCO Farms in Allendale County, South Carolina.
His family farm is participating in the study. They grow corn, soybeans, cotton, peanuts, oats, rye and sorghum, as well as run 150 head of Angus cattle. Because this is a study, farmers and researchers are learning as the research progresses.

“This year, we have been fortunate in that we haven’t had to run irrigation much on cotton, soybeans and peanuts,” Oswald says.

“Because corn requires more water, we had to water it earlier in the summer when conditions were dry.

“As for watering based on sensors we have in our soybeans, we have irrigated twice with that pivot on the test when the moisture gets to the threshold of -40 kPa. We did not irrigate the other half of the field, which is our control, because we would not have normally irrigated beans at that time.

installing a soil moisture sensor
n South Carolina, Allendale County farmer Joe Oswald and Clemson researcher Dana Bodiford Turner install watermark soil moisture sensors for on-farm trials to show farmers how using soil moisture monitoring technology can help them improve irrigation efficiency — photo courtesy Clemson University

“The sensor side of the field has had 1 inch more of irrigation than the other half, so we have had an increase in water usage on the sensor-side.”

Adjusting The System

Oswald is learning how to adjust his system to adapt to crop irrigation requirements.

“We may need to raise the threshold on beans so that irrigation isn’t triggered as early,” he says. “The beans at that time were not in bloom yet and do not require as much water as they do once they start setting pods. That’s why we didn’t irrigate our side.

“I don’t know if that will result in a higher yield on the sensor side but we will see after harvest. Over the past month, we have not run much irrigation at all. We have been blessed with timely rains.”

For More Information…

Farmers who need more information or who would like to try using the technology can contact Payero at jpayero@clemson.edu.

The studies are part of a $500,000, three-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service as an on-farm conservation innovation trial.

soil moisture sensor research results
n South Carolina, Allendale County farmer Joe Oswald and Clemson researcher Dana Bodiford Turner install watermark soil moisture sensors for on-farm trials to show farmers how using soil moisture monitoring technology can help them improve irrigation efficiency.

To learn more about efficient irrigation, watch these YouTube videos produced by Clemson University: https://bit.ly/3y0QwIG and https://bit.ly/3y02FxM.

Clemson University provided this article. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the USDA-NRCS or Clemson University.

Clemson Extension Water Resources

Jose Payero is part of the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service Water Resources Program Team. It consists of Extension specialists, associates and agents from around the state working together to address water quantity and water quality issues in South Carolina and beyond.

The team conducts community outreach and education programs, public involvement opportunities, and in-depth trainings and workshops for the citizens of South Carolina. The common goal is to foster stewardship and sustainable management of water resources for current and future generations.

These researchers and agents are working with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control to update the State Water Plan. Part of Clemson’s efforts include the launch of the South Carolina Water Resources Center, which serves as a research facilitator. It also acts as a conduit for information necessary in the resource management decision-making and policy arenas of the state.

Agriculture is South Carolina’s largest industry with a $42 billion economic impact and 98,000 jobs directly supported. The agribusiness industry has grown 23% over the past decade. This industry depends on the weather to survive. The South Carolina state climate summary from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows temperatures in the state have increased about 0.5 degrees since the beginning of the 20th century.

Annual rainfall has been below average during most years in the 2000s — with 12 of the last 15 years being characterized by warm season drought conditions.

Information from the South Carolina State Climatology Office shows droughts are the second-most costly weather events after hurricanes. Irrigation can help crops grow during drought conditions.

To contact a member of the Water Resources Program Team, go to https://bit.ly/2W45Ebg.

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