By Ashley Robinson
Florida’s sandy soils mean that water management is a key component of producing crops in the Sunshine State. According to Charles Barrett, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) regional specialized Extension agent for water resources, irrigation scheduling tools like soil moisture sensors can help producers maximize their water efficiency and crop yields.
Technology Packed with Benefits
Soil moisture sensors are key irrigation tools for growers. If used correctly, they can be very beneficial.
Whether growers have an irrigation schedule in place or not, the soil moisture sensor can be checked for trends to determine the efficacy of current irrigation practices. With the sensors, the grower can see if the soil is drying out or if the soil moisture is increasing over time. The sensor can also monitor the crop’s root zone, which can be helpful in fine-tuning an irrigation schedule.
“I’d say that the number one benefit of soil moisture sensors is that you are able to manage your water more efficiently by supplying the right amount of water at the right time,” Barrett says. “By managing your water better, you’re also managing your nutrients better since water and nutrients cannot be separated in the state of Florida because of our sandy soils.”
According to Barrett, the sensors are stationed in different locations in the field to allow growers to view the moisture and nutrients in the crop. This helps to avoid over-irrigation and loss of plant nutrients from leaching.
“Soil moistures have come a long way. Before, growers used tensiometers, an older form of the technology which is much inferior to the technology we have now. Now, they have a graph, a history in time they can watch trends occur and see when they need to irrigate. Tensiometers required you to drive up to them and take a look. You only got a snapshot in time,” Barrett says. “With this technology we have the ability to watch whole movie versus before when they only had a small snapshot.”
To encourage the use of this technology, UF/IFAS Extension Northeast District introduced a pilot program in 2017, installing the sensors free of charge to allow growers to view and understand the data provided before they commit to the investment. Funding from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences (FDACS) helped launch the program.
In addition, cost-share programs are also available to growers. Growers who are enrolled in the Best Management Practices program can get cost-share anywhere within the state through FDACS or through their water management district.
According to Barrett, the adoption of soil moisture sensors has been rapidly expanding. He believes it will continue to grow as more growers get to experience the technology for themselves. He hopes to expand the program statewide so that agents across the state can get their hands on the sensors.