Soil moisture sensors help Suwannee Valley growers manage irrigation
by Patrick Troy, Charles Barrett, Kevin Athearn, and Bob Hochmuth (UF/IFAS Suwannee Agricultural
Extension Center. Live Oak)
Soil Moisture Sensors (or SMS) are a precision agriculture technology on the rise in North Florida. Using electronic sensors at various depths, moisture readings are taken continuously throughout the day. By using this technology, growers are now able to “see underground” and at a distance through cell phone transmission of data. UF/IFAS Extension, as part of the land grant system, typically works to find solutions to production problems in agriculture and seeks out technologies or methods to answer them. In the case of SMS, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) and the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) have made cost-sharing (reimbursement) a high priority in promoting Best Management Practices. Now, many supporters of this technology are eager to get feedback on their use and benefit.
Through an eight-week summer internship, the Suwannee Valley Agricultural Extension Center hired a rising UF Agricultural Education and Communication senior, Abby Marion, to help evaluate sensor use in the Suwannee Valley. Ms. Marion and UF/IFAS extension agents visited nine growers, two vendors and two government agency personnel to learn about their experiences with soil moisture sensors. Though SMS have been around for over a decade (in simpler forms), we were surprised to find over 600 SMS probes currently in operation in the Suwannee Valley. The difference in technology is that the new instruments provide 24-hour, multi-depth, sensing (volumetric content) that can help guide irrigation timing and amounts. Overwhelmingly, growers shared positive comments on the productive role SMS play in their field management, especially for irrigation scheduling.
As with any new technology, mastering how to use it takes time. In our small sample of grower interviews, we found that most probes were purchased through cost-share programs. In all but one of the interviews, growers said they have already changed the way they irrigate to better meet crop needs. Most growers expressed that the real benefits came from reduced labor, tractor time, and input costs for production.
Our research found that:
- Over 600 SMS sensors are in operation in the region, representing almost 85,000 acres
- 1 probe manages an average of 130 acres
- 8 SMS vendors serve North Florida
Of the 9 growers interviewed:
- Collectively, they are using 125 probes (~21% of all probes in the SRWMD).
- They collectively farm around 17,000 acres (~12% of SRWMD irrigated acres).
- All (100%) received some financial assistance from FDACS, NRCS or SRWMD.
- 8 out of 9 indicated they have changed how they irrigate.
- 8 out of 9 saw savings in water, fuel, fertilizer, or electricity.
- 7 out of 9 showed labor reductions.
The benefits SMS provide varied for each farm, but most noted that continuous data availability on mobile devices allows for closer management of fields, especially geographically distant ones. Soil moisture sensors are now widely used in the area, and they are helping growers manage irrigation more efficiently. Long-term goals include quantifying the impact SMS have on yields, crop quality, water conservation, and nutrient management.
Results from this survey demonstrate strong adoption of soil moisture sensors in the Suwannee Valley Basin and positive feedback shows how diverse vegetable and row crop growers are using this technology. With further outreach and education, UF/IFAS Extension hopes to work with them to better understand and use this information to improve their production.
Please call us if you’d like technical assistance on a SMS or want to share your experience: 386/362-1725.
UF/IFAS is an equal opportunity institution