Soil Moisture Monitoring: Low-Cost Tools and Methods


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Soil Moisture Monitoring: Low-Cost Tools and Methods

  1. 1. Soil Moisture Monitoring: ATTRA Low-Cost Tools and Methods A Publication of ATTRA - National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service • 1-800-346-9140 • www.attra.ncat.orgBy Mike Morris Irrigators who monitor soil moisture levels in the field greatly increase their ability to conserve waterNCAT Energy and energy, optimize crop yields, and avoid soil erosion and water pollution. This publication explainsSpecialist how soils hold water and surveys some low-cost soil moisture monitoring tools and methods, includ-© 2006 NCAT ing a new generation of sophisticated and user-friendly electronic devices. WContents hile poor irrigationHow Soils practices cause aHold Water ........................ 2 host of environ-What Soil Moisture mental problems, irriga-Monitoring Method is tion can also be a sustain-Right for You? .................. 3 able practice, at times andDirect Inspection............ 4 places where it does notMeters and Sensors ...... 5 deplete or degrade surfaceTips on Placing water, groundwater, or soils.Moisture Sensors ............ 8 In times of high energy andOther Tools water costs, efficient irriga-and Techniques............... 9 tion is essential to the via-Conclusion ........................ 9 bility of many farms andReferences ...................... 10 ranches. In the next fewFurther Resources ........ 10 decades, more efficient irri- gation may offer the best hope of feeding the world’s NCAT photo. growing population. (Postel, 1999) Given the importance of irrigation effi- and you should track crop water use (evapo- ciency, it’s unfortunate that irrigation water transpiration) as the season goes by. These management is often presented as a series topics are not covered in this publication; of complicated mathematical calculations your local Natural Resources Conserva- that only an engineer could love. Irrigation tion Service (NRCS), Extension, or soil and management is nothing more mysterious water conservation district office should be than maintaining a suitable environment able to assist you. You should also know the for growing crops, mainly by keeping soils amount of irrigation water you are apply- from becoming too wet or too dry. There ing. (Please refer to the ATTRA publication are many ways to achieve this goal, includ- Measuring and Conserving Irrigation Water.) ing some that require no calculations at all. No one knows as much as you do about This publication describes several ways thatATTRA - National Sustainable your fields, crops, and irrigation system.Agriculture Information Service you can check the soil moisture levels inis managed by the National Cen- So adjust, adapt, or reject any suggestion in your fields, using your hands, inexpensiveter for Appropriate Technology this publication that doesn’t fit your situation(NCAT) and is funded under a probes, or new electronic devices.grant from the United States or doesn’t seem to be working. Use everyDepartment of Agriculture’sRural Business-Cooperative Ser- Of course, there’s more to irrigation man- kind of information you can find about howvice. Visit the NCAT Web site agement than just checking soil moisture your soils and crops are responding, pro-( for more informa- levels. You should follow general irrigation ceed cautiously, and test every recommen-tion on our sustainable guidelines for the crops you are growing, dation with direct observations in the field.agriculture projects.
  2. 2. How Soils Hold Water may take a few hours to drain away in sandy soils, or days or even weeks in clay soils. The water-holding capacity of a soil depends on its type, organic matter content, and Evaporation at the soil surface pulls water past management practices, among other upward through capillary forces, while cap- things. illary forces also hold water around the soil particles. When a balance is reached Soils are classified into one of about a between gravitational and capillary force, dozen standard texture classes, based on the water stops moving downward and is held proportions of sand, silt, and clay particles. by surface tension in the soil – a condition Sand particles are larger than clay parti- known as field capacity. cles, with silt particles falling in between. For example, a soil that is 20 percent clay, Capillary water stored in the root zone is 60 percent silt, and 20 percent sand (by the most important water for crop produc- weight) would be classified as silt loam. tion, but not all capillary water is available Other texture classes are sand, loamy sand, for plants to use. The water-holding force of sandy loam, loam, silt, sandy clay loam, soil, or soil water tension, is affected by soil clay loam, silty clay loam, sandy clay, silty texture. For example, clay soils have smallOverwatering can clay, and clay. pores and hold water more tightly than silt soils, with their larger pores. As soil water • drown crop root Coarse-textured soils have a high percentage systems, depleting is depleted, the fi lms of water remaining air and encourag- of sand, and fine-textured soils have a high ing disease percentage of clay. Fine-textured soils gen- Figure 1. Determining Soil Texture by the • leach nutrients, erally hold more water than coarse-textured “Feel Method.” especially nitro- soils, although some medium-textured soils Place a tablespoon of soil in your palm. Add hold as much or more plant-available water Add dry soil gen, below the water drop by drop and knead to break up aggregates. Add water and knead until the to soak up water. root zone than some clay soils. soil is the consistency of moldable putty. • send nutrients into Yes Yes Besides their texture classification, soils are Does soil stay Is the soil Is the soil groundwater in a ball when No squeezed? too dry? No too wet? No SAND • reduce root also classified into soil types or soil series, Yes growth by cooling based on soil-building factors such as geol- Place ball of soil between thumb and forefinger; gently push soil with your thumb, ogy, chemistry, age, and location. There are squeezing upward into a ribbon. Form a ribbon of uniform thickness and width. the soil Allow ribbon to emerge and extend over the forefinger, breaking from its own weight. • cause waterlog- more than 20,000 named soils in the U.S. ging and salt build- alone, with names often referring to a town Does soil form a ribbon? No LOAMY up in the root zone SAND or landmark near where the soil was fi rst Yes • reduce crop recognized. For example, the Houston Black quality and yield series is a clay soil formed under prairie Does soil make a Does soil make a Does soil make a weak ribbon less medium ribbon strong ribbon than 1 inch long 1 to 2 inches long 2 inches or longer • waste energy and vegetation in Texas. The Myakka series is before breaking? before breaking? before breaking? money a wet sandy soil found in Florida. The full Yes Yes Yes description of a soil series includes a num- Excessively wet a small pinch of soil in palm and rub with forefinger. ber of layers or horizons, starting at the sur- face and moving downward. Does the soil Does the soil Does the soil Yes Yes Yes feel very feel very feel very To identify the soil types or series in your gritty? No SANDY LOAM gritty? No SANDY CLAY gritty? No SANDY fields, refer to a soil survey. Soil surveys are LOAM CLAY Does Does Does generally available from your local NRCS the soil feel very Yes the soil feel very Yes the soil feel very Yes or Extension office. smooth? No SILT LOAM smooth? No SILTY CLAY smooth? No SILTY LOAM CLAY As water infi ltrates soil, it fi lls the pore Neither grittiness nor smoothness predominates. spaces between the soil particles. When the pores are completely saturated, some of CLAY the water — known as gravitational water LOAM LOAM CLAY — percolates down through the soil profi le and below the root zone. Gravitational waterPage 2 ATTRA Soil Moisture Monitoring: Low-Cost Tools and Methods
  3. 3. around the soil particles become thinner, surprised to learn how easy and inexpen-until they are eventually held in the soil sive it has become to purchase, install, andwith more tension than plants can over- use a state-of-the-art monitoring system.come, and the plants begin to wilt. More devices are coming on the market all capillary water the time, and prices continue to fall. • Unless you are a scientific researcher, don’t get too hung up on accuracy or precision. Methods and devices will givegravitational water film – slightly different readings, but almostwater not available all will track moisture trends similarly. Permanent to plant So choose a method that works for you, Saturation Field Capacity Wilting Point take the exact readings with a grain of salt, and pay more attention to theFigure 2. Saturation, Field Capacity, andPermanent Wilting Point. trends and changes you are seeing over time.Available water capacity is the amount of • Consider the limitations imposed bywater a soil can make available to plants, your irrigation system, and choose agenerally defined as the difference between method that gives you information you Related ATTRAthe amount of water stored in a soil at field Publications can use. As a general rule, the greatercapacity and the amount of water stored in your control over the rate and frequency The Montana Irriga-the soil at the permanent wilting point. of water applications, the more sophisti- tor’s Pocket Guide cated and detailed the information you Drought Resistant can use. Soils • Consider your soils and crops. Some Sustainable Soil devices work better in coarse soils than Management in fi ne soils, some devices work better } Soil Management: Top Half with annual crops than with perennial Water Uptake National Organic of Roots crops, and so on. High-value crops will Program Regulations often justify a more expensive monitor- Alternative Soil ing system than low-value crops. Amendments • Consider what’s convenient for you. Some devices are portable while others are hard-wired in place. Some devicesFigure 3. Effective Root Zone: the top halfof the actual rooting depth, which supplies give you “raw” data, and others do theabout 70% of the crop’s water needs. calculations for you or display readings in a graph. Some devices require cablesPlants get most of their water from the upper that may interfere with tillage.(shallow) portion of the root zone. The term • Be realistic in your expectations. Soileffective root zone refers to about the upper moisture measurement, even with thehalf of the root zone depth, where roughly advent of ever-more-accurate devices,70 percent of the plant’s water is taken up. is still an art as much as a science. Soil sensing and measuring devices don’tWhat Soil Moisture substitute for the judgment, observation,Monitoring Method and local knowledge that good irrigatorsis Right for You? acquire over time.In deciding when and how much to irrigate The methods below are arranged roughly in(a process sometimes called irrigation sched- order of cost, from least expensive to moreuling), all irrigators should do some kind expensive. All work just fine if they are usedof soil moisture monitoring. You may be properly and ATTRA Page 3
  4. 4. Table 1. Determining Soil Water Content by Feel and Appearance % of Available Moderately Fine and Water Capacity Coarse Moderately Coarse Medium Fine (AWC) Exceeds field Free water appears when Free water is released with Free water can be Puddles and free water capacity – runoff soil is bounced in hand. kneading. squeezed out. forms on surface. & deep percolation. Upon squeezing, no free water appears on soil, but wet outline of ball is left on hand. 100% – At field capacity Tends to stick together, Forms weak ball that Forms a ball and is very Ribbons out between forms a weak crumbly ball breaks easily; does not pliable; sticks readily if thumb and finger; has a 70 – 80% of AWC under pressure. stick. relatively high in clay. slick feeling. Tends to stick together. Tends to ball under pres- Forms a ball, somewhat Forms a ball; ribbons out May form a very weak ball sure, but seldom holds plastic; sticks slightly under 50 – 70% of AWC between thumb and finger. under pressure. together. pressure. For most crops, irrigation should begin at 40 to 60% of AWC. Crop-specific guidelines are available from NRCS or Extension. Appears to be dry; does Appears to be dry; does Somewhat crumbly but Somewhat pliable; balls up not form a ball under not form a ball under holds together under 25 – 50% of AWC under pressure. pressure. pressure. pressure. Powdery dry, sometimes Hard, baked, cracked; Dry, loose, single-grained Dry, loose, flows slightly crusted but easily sometimes has loose 0 – 25% of AWC flow through fingers. through fingers. breaks down into powder. crumbs on surface.Adapted from NRCS Irrigation Guide, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, 1997. Direct Inspection The probe will stop abruptly when it reaches dry soil. (Rocks and gravel will also stop the The least expensive methods rely on digging probe, but these are easily detected by a up soil samples in the field and then inspect- metallic click.) Check the mark on the probe ing, feeling, or weighing and drying them. shaft to determine the depth of the wetted Feel and Appearance Method soil. Take walnut-sized soil samples from vari- To obtain a soil sample, twist the probe after ous locations and depths in the field, appro- pushing it into the ground. The probe will priate to your crop’s root zone. Then use be full of soil when you pull it up. Then use the table above to estimate the soil water either the “feel and appearance” method or content of your samples. With practice and gravimetric weight method to estimate soil diligence, the feel and appearance method moisture. can be accurate enough for most irrigation management decisions. A soil probe, auger, Figure 4. Soil Sampling Tools or core sampler is far superior to a shovel, especially for retrieving deep soil samples. Hand-Push Probe You can use a hand-push probe (sometimes called a Paul Brown Probe or Brown Mois- ture Probe) to determine the depth of wetted soil and also to retrieve soil samples. These extremely useful probes cost less than $50 and are among the fastest and easiest ways to check moisture anywhere in your fields. To determine the depth of wetted soil, push the probe vigorously into the soil by putting your weight on the handle without turning.Page 4 ATTRA Soil Moisture Monitoring: Low-Cost Tools and Methods
  5. 5. Gravimetric Weight MethodThe gravimetric method involves weigh-ing soil samples, drying them in an oven,weighing them again, and using the differ-ence in weight to calculate the amount ofwater in the soil. While too time consum-ing to be used for day-to-day managementdecisions, this highly accurate and low-cost method is often used to calibrate othertools. Your local Extension or NRCS office Gypsum blocks.may be able to provide instructions for this NCAT photo.technique, or you can find the instructionson the Internet.Meters and SensorsMore sophisticated devices measure somephysical property that is correlated withsoil moisture. Some portable sensing toolsare pushed directly into the soil or into anaccess tube implanted in the soil. Other sys-tems rely on buried sensors that are eitherhard-wired to a fi xed meter or else have Granular matrix sensor.long attached wires (electrodes) that are NCAT photo.left above-ground and hooked to a portablehand-held meter. one problem to be poor soil-to-sensor con- tact, usually in coarse or gravelly soils.Soil Moisture Blocks When burying any soil moisture sensingThe most common sensors, electrical resis- device, minimize soil compaction and dis-tance blocks, work on the principle that turbance to the surrounding soil and can-water conducts electricity. The wetter the opy cover. Your goal is to install each sen-soil, the lower the electrical resistance and sor in surroundings that are representativethe better the block conducts electricity. of the field.The two most common types of electricalresistance blocks are gypsum blocks (with a Electrical resistance blocks may be readlife of as little as one year but a cost of only either with a data logger (see below) or with$5 to $15 apiece) and granular matrix sen- a portable hand-held meter. Hand-heldsors (lasting three to seven years or more meters, costing $150 to $600, generally either give electrical resistance readings inand costing $25 to $35 each). Freezing ohms or else convert resistance to centibars.can cause cracking and premature aging in (See text box below.)gypsum blocks, but will generally not hurtgranular matrix sensors. Hand-held meters have their advantages. You don’t need to bury cables in the field.Electrical resistance blocks work by absorb- And because the meter is portable, you caning water from the surrounding soil. They check moisture at an unlimited number ofneed to be buried carefully, with snug soil sites, wherever your soil moisture blocks arecontact and no air pockets—something that buried.may be difficult to achieve in coarse or grav-elly soils. Over the past several years, the A disadvantage of hand-held meters, though,National Center for Appropriate Technology is that each monitoring site must be marked(NCAT) has installed hundreds of granular in some way, so you can find the electrodesmatrix sensors. We have found the number- in the field and hook them to the ATTRA Page 5
  6. 6. gauge in centibars (cb). These devices work A common indicator of soil moisture is soil water tension best in the range of 0 to 80 cb, making Some soil moisture monitoring instruments give volumetric readings — them better suited to coarse soils than fine moisture per foot or per inch of soil — while other instruments indicate soils. A coarse soil at 80 cb might cause the level of soil water tension. Soil water tension is usually measured in severe crop stress, whereas a fine soil such centibars (cb), where a centibar is 1/100th of a bar, and a bar is roughly as clay might still contain more than half of equivalent to one atmosphere of pressure. Centibars measure the force its available water capacity at 80 cb. that a plant must exert to extract water from the soil. As the plant works harder to remove water, the centibar number increases. So larger centibar Tensiometers are fairly easy to use but numbers mean drier soil. must be serviced regularly by fi lling with Soil water tension levels mean different things in different soils and so water and using a pump to pull a vacuum. — unfortunately — there is no simple way to translate centibar readings If the soil becomes too dry, tensiometers into water volumes or vice versa. Depending on soil texture, for example, can lose soil contact, requiring re-installa- field capacity may be between about 10 and 33 cb. Coarse soils (such as tion. Depending on length—from 6 to 48 sands and sandy clay loams) have released 50 percent of their available inches—they cost $45 to $80. Because they water by the time soils have dried out to 40 to 50 cb. On the other hand, are easy to install and remove, tensiome- many clay and silty soils still retain more than 50 percent of available water at 80 cb. ters are well-suited to cultivated fields and annual crops where buried blocks or cable would be awkward. They are also often Another disadvantage is the challenge of used in orchards. wading through crops (sometimes tall and wet) to your monitoring sites. Also, the Tensiometers measure moisture tension at meters seem expensive for what they do. For the depth where the tip is located. To use roughly the cost of a hand-held meter you two tensiometers as simple irrigation “on- could purchase a sophisticated data logger off” indicators, install one at the center of offering graphical display, automated mois- the effective root zone and another one just ture readings, and many other features. below the effective root zone (i.e., at approx- imately one third and two thirds of the total Considering the high cost of the hand-held root depth). Use the shallow tensiometer as meters, you may be tempted (as we were) to an indicator to start irrigating and use the measure resistance with an ordinary ohm deeper one as an indicator to stop irrigat- meter. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. ing. Ohm meters use DC power, which polarizes the soil moisture blocks and causes read- Table 2. Irrigation Guidelines Based on ings to fluctuate wildly. The meters made Centibar Readings specifically for use with soil moisture blocks Reading Interpretation convert DC power to AC, avoiding polariza- 0-10 cb Saturated soil tion and giving stable readings. 10-20 cb Most soils are at field capacity Thermal dissipation blocks, a less-common 30-40 cb Typical range of irrigation in alternative to electrical resistance blocks, many coarse soils work on the principle that dry objects heat 40-60 cb Typical range of irrigation in up faster than wet objects. These porous many medium soils ceramic blocks contain small heaters and 70-90 cb Typical range of irrigation in temperature sensors. They cost $35 to $50 heavy clay soils apiece, with meters costing $150 to $600. > 100 cb Crop water stress in most soils Tensiometers Adapted from Watermark Soil Moisture Sensors, The Irrometer Company, Riverside, CA. A tensiometer is an airtight, water-fi lled tube with a porous ceramic tip on the end that is placed in the soil, with a vacuum gauge Data Loggers Tensiometer. Photo courtesy on the other end that protrudes above the Soil moisture data loggers are typically bat- The Irrometer ground. Tensiometers measure soil water ten- tery-operated devices, permanently mounted Company. sion and display the reading on the vacuum on a post and hard-wired to buried electricalPage 6 ATTRA Soil Moisture Monitoring: Low-Cost Tools and Methods
  7. 7. resistance block sensors. At regular inter- Between 2000 and 0 Steep downward trend Irrigationvals (generally every several hours), the data 2004, NCAT helped Precipitation 25logger sends a current through each sensor, install around 100 Shallow trend Centibarsmeasuring electrical resistance. The mea- soil moisture data 50surements are converted into soil moisture loggers at farms andreadings and stored in memory. Data log- ranches in Montana. 75gers with a graphical display show several Data logger installa-days or weeks of readings in a bar graph, tion is not particularly Figure 5. Dataallowing you to see recent soil moisture difficult, and the headaches mostly relate to Logger Graphicaltrends at a glance on the screen. Depend- the cable. We saw dozens of faulty splices, on their features, soil moisture data log- cables chewed by livestock and wildlife,gers may cost $60 to $500, not including cables damaged by machinery during till-sensors or cable. age and hay cutting, cables melted when the owner was burning weeds, cables melted byThe arrival of low-cost soil moisture data lightning, and (on one memorable occasion)loggers on the market in the late 1990s was a cable snagged by a passing car.great news for irrigators. A major advantageof data loggers is that no matter how busy Besides displaying recent moisture read-you get, the monitor automatically checks ings, soil moisture data loggers store sev-and records your soil moisture. The moni- eral months or years of data, which may betor is normally mounted on a conveniently- downloaded and viewed in graph form.located post at the edge of the field or nearthe control panel of a center pivot, eliminat- Comments from Data Logger Usersing the need to walk into the field or fi nd Below are a few representative commentselectrodes amidst foliage. A disadvantage is from interviews with NCAT’s 2000-2004that a limited number of sensors (typically soil moisture data logger project partici-6 to 15) can be connected to the monitor. pants. (The names are fictitious.)Installation generally also requires running Jim Clinton intensively grazes grass pasture,cable from the data logger to each sensor. which he waters frequently and for shortWhen feasible, such as in perennial crops, periods. After he installed a soil moistureburying the cable is recommended. data logger, he checked it daily and calledFigure 6. Soil Moisture Graph Generated by a Data Logger, Showing an Entire Irrigation ATTRA Page 7
  8. 8. it “one of the best things to come along for George Adams told us that his irrigation a long, long time.” Jim quickly became con- practices didn’t change much during his vinced that he was overwatering. He had fi rst year using a data logger. The device been running five- to six-hour sets through did give him a much better idea, though, the growing season, switching to eight-hour how the water was moving down through sets during hot weather. In his second year the soil profi le. He said, “The year before I with the monitor, he ran two-hour sets in wasn’t getting water deep enough. This year the spring, three-hour sets through May, I wanted to saturate it then let it go longer and four- to five-hour sets when it got hot. between passes to let the water go deeper, He told us, “Soil moisture has always been by slowing down the pivot. Yield was fantas- the missing link… The meter said that six tic.” In subsequent years, George has moni-Soil Moisture Data hours was all we needed. Even if it started tored soil moisture in the spring and startedLogger. out at 90 centibars, we got down to 10 cen- irrigating earlier. He told us that he sees theNCAT Photo. tibars within six hours.” device as useful for limited-water situations: “Instead of trying to water everything, I can After Chester Hendricks installed a soil set priorities for short water supplies.” moisture monitor, he looked at it “every day, at least, and sometimes two or three Three years of using a soil moisture data times per day.” He told us that he bases logger have not caused John Jefferson to most of his decisions on careful observation make major changes to his water manage- of the crop, and he called the data logger ment methods, but have confirmed his belief “a tool to manage the crop along with visual that he is not overwatering and is making observation of the crop… It’s a tool, but so good use of water. He told us that the moni- is looking at the crop.” Chester believes that tor has helped him save water during spring the monitor definitely made a difference to rains and late June snowstorms. “We saved his total production. During an exception- two to three days of watering because the ally hot and dry summer, he “didn’t let the ground was wet after a late snow,” Jefferson crop get hurt” by the hot dry weather, and says. At prevailing electricity rates, he saved enjoyed excellent yields, “one of our best about $100 in these three days alone. crops ever.” Chester was surprised that evapotranspiration rates skyrocketed once Tips on Placing the plants started getting taller. “An 18- Moisture Sensors inch crop pulls a lot more moisture than when the plants are smaller and younger.” • It’s generally not practical to monitor He was also impressed by “how much every part of the field, so install sensors effect wind and humidity make on deple- in average soil and slope areas. Avoid tion of soil moisture…. Unbelievable.” He field edges and unusually wet or dry saw some tremendous moisture drops take areas. place in just a four to six hour period. • For mature trees, place sensors wellNCAT photo. away from the trunk but inside the drip line (canopy diameter). • The question of how deeply to maintain soil moisture is a management decision, depending on crop and growth stage, soil conditions, and other factors. In general, though, management should focus on the effective root zone; i.e., the upper half, where plants take up most of their water. • For three-foot or deeper effective root depths, you may want to place sen- sors at three depths; e.g., in the top,Page 8 ATTRA Soil Moisture Monitoring: Low-Cost Tools and Methods
  9. 9. middle, and deepest third of the total • Avoid the inner part of a pivot circle root depth. (inside the first tower), which tends to be • For effective root zones of two feet or wetter than the rest of the circle. less, place sensors at two depths. Other Tools and Techniques • Place a sensor below the root zone In 2006, the tools below are generally more for shallow-rooted crops (including expensive and best suited to high-value grasses), or in the lower quarter of the crops, large farms, and scientific research. root zone for deeper-rooted crops, as a In some cases, though, high-tech features way of detecting deep percolation and are becoming available at affordable prices. overwatering. It’s hard to predict the future of this highly • For center pivots, monitor a few sprin- competitive and rapidly changing market. kler diameters from where you normally start the pivot, in the direction of pivot Remote sensing systems ($1,000 and up) use movement. Also monitor a few sprinkler buried sensors wired to a nearby transmit- diameters before the spot where you ter that sends readings to a receiver, usu- normally stop the pivot. ally a data logger connected to a computer. These systems are often called “wireless.” Although this term is slightly misleading,Figure 7. Soil Monitoring Sites it’s true that the cable connections betweenUnder Pivot. the sensors and transmitter are typically sensor/sampling locations quite short. The big advantage of these sys- tems is that they allow large farms to moni- tor soil moisture in several fields from a sin- gle computer, without going into the field. full circle pivot Time domain reflectometers (TDR) send an electromagnetic wave along two parallel rods or stiff wires inserted in the soil, mea- pivot travel suring the “dielectric constant” of the soil. direction pivot start/end spot TDR instruments range in price from about $500 to $4,400. Changes in soil texture act as a temporary Frequency domain reflectometers ($475 to barrier to water movement. $900) use high-frequency radio waves pulsed Fine soil overlying a coarse soil, or vice versa, through the soil from a pair of electrodes. must become very wet before water will move Infrared thermometry is based on the prin- down through the subsoil. Under these condi- ciple that the temperature of a plant’s leaves tions, the overlying soil holds up to three times as much water as it would in more uniform soils. is related to its transpiration rate. Infra- If you have distinct layers of soil, you may want to red satellite imagery to detect crop stress is monitor soil moisture in each layer separately. under research. ConclusionFigure 8. Water Movement Soil moisture monitors, especially the newin Stratified Soils. generation of electronic devices, show you how water is moving through your soils, with a precision and vividness that most irrigators have never seen before. The effect can be startling — almost like hav- ing an x-ray machine that allows you to look beneath the surface of the soil. With(Adapted from NRCS Irrigation Guide, USDA Natural the cost of sophisticated monitoring sys-Resources Conservation Service, 1997.) tems dropping into the range of a ATTRA Page 9
  10. 10. hundred dollars, many of these devices are rapidly Other Publicationspaying for themselves in the form of crop yield improve- Soil Water Monitoring with Inexpensive Equip-ments, energy savings, water conservation, and peace ment. 2000. By Richard Allen, University of Idaho,of mind. Kimberly, ID. [four papers]On the other hand, soil moisture monitors don’t “tell you to irrigate.” You’ll still need to develop guidelines Reviews and research on low-cost soil moisture moni-for your own crops and soils, and there is no substitute toring equipment.for the experience, subtle observations, and judgment Hard copy available fromthat make someone a good farmer. Kimberly Research and Extension Center University of IdahoReferences 3793 North 3600 EastPostel, Sandra. 1999. Pillar of Sand. Worldwatch Kimberly, ID 83341 Books, New York. 313 pages. 208-423-4691USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service. 1997. Tensiometer Use in Irrigation Scheduling. 1997. NRCS Irrigation Guide. Natural Resources By Mahbub Alam and Danny H. Rogers. Kansas Conservation Service, Washington, DC. 702 State University Agricultural Experiment Station and pages. Cooperative Extension Service, Manhattan, KS. 6 p. books-part652.html Tensiometer installation, use, and troubleshooting. Hard copy available fromFurther Resources Production Services/Distribution Kansas State UniversityNCAT Publications 26 Umberger HallInstalling and Using the AM400 Soil Moisture Manhattan, KS 66506-3404Monitor. 2004. By Mike Morris and Vicki Lynne. 785-532-5830National Center for Appropriate Technology, Butte, Measuring Soil Moisture. 1998. By Blaine HansonMT. 17 pages. and Steve Orloff. University of California, Davis, CA. Detailed instructions for installing and using the 34 p. AM400 soil moisture data logger, including main- tenance, troubleshooting, downloading data, and Good discussion and comparison of soil moisture advanced settings. To request a free print or elec- measuring devices, although slightly dated and does tronic copy, call 800-411-3222 (toll-free). not include data loggers.The Montana Irrigator’s Pocket Guide. 2003. By Hard copy available fromMike Morris, Vicki Lynne, Nancy Matheson, and Al Cooperative Extension OfficeKurki. National Center for Appropriate Technology, Department of Land, Air and Water ResourcesButte, MT. 161 pages. 113 Veihmeyer Hall A take-to-the-field reference to help irrigators save University of California energy, water, and money, including guidelines for Davis, CA 95616 water management, equipment maintenance, and 530-752-1130 handy conversions and formulas. Get a free printed copy by calling 800-346-9140 (toll-free). Web sitesWater and Energy Conservation with the AM400 NRCS Irrigation PageSoil Moisture Monitor. 2004. By Mike Morris. USDA-Natural Resources Conservation ServiceNational Center for Appropriate Technology, Butte, 15 pages. A comprehensive source for irrigation reports, guides, Summarizes four years of NCAT research on the statistics, photos, and links. AM400 soil moisture monitor. To request a free print or electronic copy, call 800-411-3222 (toll-free).Page 10 ATTRA Soil Moisture Monitoring: Low-Cost Tools and Methods
  11. 11. The Soil Water Content Sensor discussion group Gempler’ P.O. Box 44993Moderated by Bruce Metelerkamp Madison, WI 53744-4993 An e-mail discussion list and archives, with discus- 800-382-8473 (toll-free) sions and reviews of all kinds of soil moisture moni- toring devices, concentrating on automated elec- Source of soil moisture sensors, probes, tensiometers, tronic sensors that can be continuously logged with and other irrigation equipment. data loggers. Irrometer Company, Inc.An Internet search under “soil moisture monitoring” (or P.O. Box 2424similar key words) will yield hundreds of additional Web Riverside, CA 92516sites offering products, reviews, and guidelines. 909-689-3706 www.irrometer.comSuppliers Source of Watermark granular matrix soil moistureHundreds of companies make and sell soil moisture mon- sensors, hand-held soil moisture meters, tensiometers,itoring equipment. Listed below are a few representative soil moisture data loggers, and other soil moisturesources of equipment mentioned in this article. monitoring equipment.Art’s Manufacturing & Supply, Inc. Isaacs and Associates, Inc.105 Harrison Street 3380 Isaacs Ave.American Falls, ID 83211 Walla Walla, WA 99362800-635-7330 (toll-free) 800-237-2286 (toll-free) Source of soil probes, bucket augers, and other irriga- Source of remote soil moisture monitoring systems. tion equipment. M.K. Hansen CompanyBen Meadows Company 2216 Fancher Boulevard2589 Broad Street East Wenatchee, WA 98802Atlanta, GA 30341 509-884-1396800-241-6401 (toll-free) Manufacturer of the AM400 soil moisture data logger.Campbell Scientific, Inc.815 West 1800 North Soil Moisture Equipment CorporationLogan, UT 84321-1784 801 S. Kellog Ave.435-753-2342 Goleta, CA 805-964-3525 Source of data loggers and weather stations. Source for soil augers, soil moisture sensors and meters, tensiometers, time domain reflectometers,Davis Instruments Corp. and other soil moisture monitoring equipment.3465 Diablo Ave.Hayward, CA Source of weather stations and wireless soil moisture monitoring systems.Delmhorst Instrument Company51 Indian Lane EastTowaco, NJ 07082-10251-877-DELMHORST (toll-free) Source of gypsum blocks and hand-held soil mois- ture ATTRA Page 11
  12. 12. Soil Moisture Monitoring: Low-Cost Tools and Methods By Mike Morris NCAT Energy Specialist © 2006 NCAT Paul Williams, Editor Robyn Metzger, Production This publication is available on the Web at: or IP277 Slot 277 Version 040306Page 12 ATTRA