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How Harvest Gives You A Time To Reflect On Soil Moisture Monitoring

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Written by Kelly Downing |
fall light

I love, really love, winter. I like snow, I appreciate what the winter freeze-thaw cycles do for our soil structure, and I enjoy visualizing weeds and insects dying in the cold. And let’s face it— I am built for cold weather. However, fall is my favorite season. There are the cultural touchpoints: football, Thanksgiving, the renewal of the school year, which seems to drive a lot of the “seasons” in our society. There is the environment: beautiful, crisp weather with cool nights and pleasant days, and that particular cast to the autumn light that is just special.

But the best part of fall is harvest, when we can see the results of the past growing season. Combines are rolling, and trucks are crowding into line at elevators. In our area, we have been blessed with pretty good weather so far, and farmers are making a lot of progress. Harvest seems a lot more complicated than it used to be. Getting the crop out of the field and into the bin are no longer the only things we worry about. With modern technology, we seem to spend as much time, effort and money harvesting data as well.

In this new data-driven system, fall is also the season when we begin the process of using harvest data to evaluate our management decisions. This, of course, helps drive our planning decisions for next year. Reviewing how our systems worked in 2016 sets the stage for setting up 2017. There has been increasing interest in ways to increase the efficiency and sustainability of production agriculture, and of course I am specifically concerned with irrigation effectiveness and efficiency as part of this view.

For many producers, the real issue is how they monitor crop water status to optimize production. Many conduct this soil moisture monitoring using soil water sensors. This helps schedule the timing and amount of water applied to the crop. Every year, there are more soil moisture monitoring products available, and everyone has to decide what will work best for their operation. These products use various technologies to measure soil water content, and companies also have different options for recording and reporting the data generated.

This time of year, you can begin to use your yield monitor data to assess the effectiveness of not only your management scheme, but also your sensors and system. As you begin to decide on soil sensors for next year, there is a lot to consider.

The number and variety of technologies available can be confusing at best and overwhelming at worst, especially considering the variety of soils and crops found on many farms. I don’t have the space, nor do you have the patience, to go through all the options here. The University of Nebraska has an extension publication that does a good job of explaining these technologies. You can find a PDF of the publication here.

I think, for most producers, the decision of which sensors to select has more to do with management than physics. The important question is not necessarily what sensor is most accurate in a set of specific circumstances. What soil moisture monitoring solution works best in your system? This includes accuracy, of course, but also how often and easily does it report? How do you incorporate the data into your decision-making process? What other information or resources do you need to make good decisions? How much automation do you need? Let’s face it, the best information doesn’t help much if it is too difficult to get or to use.

Another factor is, of course, cost. Many very precise sensors are available, but their cost often limits the number that can be used in a field. It is a personal decision for each manager—are you more comfortable with several lower-cost, moderately accurate sensors, or do you prefer a single “golden sensor” that reports from a single point in the field?

Harvest gives many of us a lot of time in the cab alone. This is often a good chance to reflect on these issues, especially as you watch the yield monitor. Where were the problems? What areas did better than you expected?

Especially with current prices, it is a real challenge to find profit in farming. Often, we chase profit by eliminating investment. I encourage you to think also about improving efficiency. With high energy costs, using soil sensors to drive irrigation scheduling can be an opportunity to do this. Using the right sensors for your operation can improve profitability by maintaining yield while reducing pumping costs.

There is a lot of help available as you make these decisions and work through the process, including your irrigation dealer, vendors and university extension specialists. I encourage you to make full use of all these resources, and I wish you the best as you work through the process and make decisions.

As you go through harvest, remember to be careful. Rest when you are tired, eat when you are hungry, pet the dog and be sure to take some time each day for your family. Have a safe harvest season, and let us know how things are going with you.

Did you enjoy this article? Check out these articles next:
Harvest: A Time To Reflect On Your Year And Look To The Next Year
Doing Soil Moisture Monitoring The Right Way
Recognizing Soil Moisture Loss In Your Crops

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