- Author: Jim Wolpert - UC Davis
Soil Moisture Sensors
Jim Wolpert, University of California, Davis
Soil Moisture Content
The quantity of water in soil is called the soil moisture content. After rainfall or irrigation, some water drains from the soil by the force of gravity. The remaining water is held in the soil by a complex force known as surface tension and varies depending on the amount of sand, silt, and clay. Sands, with larger particles and smaller total surface area, will hold less water than clays, which have much smaller particles and larger total surface area. The drier the soil, the greater the surface tension, and the more energy it will take for a plant to extract water.
Vineyard managers often measure soil water content as a guide to determine their irrigation timings and amounts. There are several methods for monitoring soil water content. Correlating these methods with actual inches of moisture per foot of soil is very complicated (see Recommended Links) but at the very least can help a grower to identify patterns of water use, depth of irrigation, and soil water content trends over time.
A tensiometer, as its name implies, is a device for measuring soil moisture tension. The design is a simple tube with a porous cup at the lower end and a vacuum gauge on top. The tube is filled with water, sealed airtight, and placed in soil. As soil dries, water is pulled from the porous cup into the soil, creating a vacuum and causing the gauge to move. As soil continues to dry, more water is pulled out and the suction increases. As soil re-wets after a rain or irrigation, water moves back into the cup and the suction decreases. Installing tensiometers in soil requires attention to detail to obtain accurate readings (see Recommended Links for installation downloads).
Tensiometers are usually placed as a pair with the shorter tube positioned in the middle of the rooting zone (e.g., 18 inches deep) and a longer tube positioned near the bottom of the rooting zone (3 to 4 feet deep). Growers can use the difference between the two tubes to monitor water usage and determine the effective depth of irrigation. At least two stations (two tubes per station) are recommended per field, or more depending on soil variability.
Tensiometers have the advantage of being inexpensive, and easy to install, maintain, and read. They are better in fine-textured soils where good contact can be made between the porous cup and the soil. They do not work well in coarse sands where good contact may not be possible. Because the gauges are aboveground, the units are prone to damage by vineyard equipment.
Electrical Resistance Blocks
Electrical resistance blocks are also known as gypsum blocks or soil moisture blocks. They are simple devices with two electrodes embedded in a block of gypsum or other similar material. When blocks are buried in soil, water moves into or out of the block, depending on the moisture of the soil, changing the resistance between the two electrodes. Like tensiometers, gypsum blocks are cheap and easy to install. They are usually installed in at least two stations per field, at two depths, and must be installed correctly to provide accurate readings. Some block designs perform better under wet soil conditions and some correct for soil temperature. The meter used to read the blocks can be moved from field to field, but is specific to the block design (i.e., it is not a simple ohm meter). The wires aboveground are much less prone to damage by equipment compared to tensiometers.
A neutron probe uses a radioactive source for measuring soil moisture. A tube, usually made of PVC or aluminum, is installed in soil to a depth of interest and the radioactive probe is lowered into soil to measure soil moisture at as many depths as desired. The probe emits fast neutrons that are slowed by water in the soil in a way that can be calibrated to the soil water content. The probe has a significant advantage, especially for perennial crops, because access tubes are easy to install and relatively permanent. Another advantage is the reading accounts for a spherical area about 10 inches in diameter, much greater than other methods. The major limitation to this method is the probe itself; it is expensive and the presence of a radioactive source triggers requirements for operators to be trained and licensed in handling, storage, and use. In some production regions, service providers are available, usually at a fixed cost per access tube for a growing season.
Di-electric sensors measure the di-electric constant of soil, a characteristic that changes with changing soil moisture. A common method is called time domain reflectometry, or TDR. The theory behind how this method works is too complicated to be discussed here. The advantage of these types of systems is that they are designed to be left in place and provide continuous readings of soil moisture. The disadvantages are that the units are expensive and read soil moisture only a very small distance from the unit.
All measures of soil moisture suffer from the same limitation — the value of the information is dependent on the extent to which the soil where the measurements are taken reflects the rest of the field. Where soil variability is high, growers must exercise caution in relying too heavily on relatively few measurements.
Irrigation of Winegrapes, University of California
Irrigation Basics for Eastern Washington Vineyards, Washington State University
Reviewed by Ed Hellman, Texas AgriLife Extension and Eric Stafne, Mississippi State University
SACRAMENTO — The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) has awarded $215,670 for five projects that will promote and administer agricultural education and leadership programs for students, teachers and youth under the 2014 California Special Interest License Plate (CalAgPlate) grant program. The CalAgPlate program is funded with proceeds generated through the sale of specialized, agriculture-themed license plates through the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). CalAgPlates were first made available in 2012, and over 19,000 plates have been sold to date.
Projects funded as part of the program's inaugural year include a farm-to-school program linking students to local farmers; an agricultural industry tour that will increase student awareness of career opportunities within farming and agribusiness; a hands-on seminar for teachers to help broaden curricular exposure of students to agriculture; a program to educate elementary school students on the role of agriculture in our daily lives; and a program that provides opportunities for high school students to engage in agricultural education, leadership development and career training.
“Agricultural education is fundamental to the appreciation of how agriculture and food production touches every Californian,” said Secretary Karen Ross. “The projects being funded are great examples of how to connect students and consumers to agriculture and the many career possibilities within the food and agricultural system.”
The CalAgPlate program is made possible through the hard work of many people and organizations that helped to promote the sale of this specialized license plate. Special thanks are given to the Future Farmers of America (FFA), the California Agricultural Leadership Program (Class XXXI), and to the many student volunteers who represent California agriculture.
The 2014 CalAgPlate project abstracts are available online at www.cdfa.ca.gov/calagplate.
Help to support agricultural education and the CalAgPlate program by purchasing a special interest license plate at your local DMV office or online today.
—California Department of Agriculture
Here's a wide range of information on drought resources from ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service - https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=458
- Author: Gary Bender
- Author: Dave Shaw
By now almost everyone growing tree crops in California is undergoing some amount of mandatory water cutbacks, especially if they are buying water from water districts. Some districts in the San Joaquin Valley have had really severe cuts, up to 80%. For a lot of growers who are not buying water, they may be facing severe water shortages due to water tables that are dropping.
San DiegoCounty is a good example. In 2008 all of the avocado and citrus growers in San Diego
County had a mandatory 30% water cutback, if they
were in the water discount program known as the Interruptible Ag Water Program. Fearing that the cuts would be even higher in 2009 if they stayed in the program, most growers opted out, but were then faced with paying full price for their water. Now, it looks like most of these growers will be faced with a mandatory cut of about 8% (this depends on the water district), and will have to pay full price for ag water. But wait! Because the districts aren't selling as much water, they need to raise prices to cover their fixed costs. For instance, Fallbrook
Public Utility District recently announced they were raising prices 13%. Many districts in San DiegoCounty have simply followed water wholesalers (MWD and SDCWA) in their price increases.
Please make sure that you are in touch with your local water district. They may have a different cutback rate than the 8% mentioned as well as conservation guidelines and regulations. You are responsible for knowing this information and you could be looking at some hefty fines for using more water than allowed.
So what can you as a grower do when faced with this scenario? Before we start with our recommendations, let's start by thinking about what you can't do. (This always confuses the issue, so let's get this off the table).
- You can't make it rain more. We are in a prolonged drought, this happens periodically in California, and that's just the way it is. Can you lobby for more storage for when it does rain in excess? Yes!
2. You can't solve the Delta smelt issue, not unless Congress cancels the Endangered Species Act. A solution for bypassing the Delta with a pipeline from the Sacramento River down to the State Water Project canal which supplies Southern California would certainly help. Researchers at UC Davis have determined that the canal would be the most economically feasible way to fix the delta issues. However, given California's budget woes, it probably won't happen soon.
- There are no magical solutions that work to “inactivate” the salts in your well water. There are a lot of devices sold that make lots of claims, but there is no University research evidence that shows that any of them work. The only thing that does work is reverse osmosis, but be careful because these systems produce brine which must be disposed of legally. The brine cannot go into the local creek.
OK! Let's Strategize. There are four steps for everybody to consider, it doesn't matter if you have a backyard lawn and landscape or if you have 700 acres of avocados.
1. Maintenance: Irrigation System and Cultural Practices
2. Improve Irrigation Scheduling
3. Deficit Irrigation
4. Reduce Irrigated Area
a. Irrigation System.
- Fix leaks. Unfortunately, there are almost always leaks for all kinds of reasons. Pickers step on sprinklers, squirrels eat through polytube, branches drop on valves, coyote puppies like to chew….the system should be checked during every irrigation
- Drain the lines. At the beginning of each year every lateral line should be opened in order to drain the fine silt that builds up.
- Maintain or increase the uniformity of irrigation so that each tree or each area gets about the same amount of water. Common problems include different sized sprinklers on the same line or pressure differences in the lines. Where there are elevation changes, every line should have a pressure regulator, they come pre-set to 30 psi. Having all of your lines set up with pressure regulators is the only way you can get an even distribution of water to all of the trees, and it solves the problem of too much pressure at the bottom of the grove and not enough at the top.
- Clean the filters often. You don't have a filter because you think that the district water has already been filtered? Hah! What happens if there is a break in the line in the street and the line fills with dirt during the repairs? All of your sprinklers will soon be filled with dirt.
- Is water flow being reduced at the end of the lateral line? It could be because scaffold roots are growing old enough to pinch off the buried line. The only cure is to replace the line.
b. Cultural Management.
- Control the weeds because weeds can use a lot of water.
- Mulch? Mulching is good for increasing biological activity in the soil and reducing stress on the trees, but the mulch will not save a lot of water if you are irrigating often….the large evaporative surface in mulches causes a lot of water to evaporate if the mulch surface is kept wet through frequent irrigation. Mulches are more helpful in reducing water use if the trees are young and a lot of soil is exposed to direct sunlight.
2. Improve the Irrigation Scheduling.
- CIMIS will calculate the amount of water to apply in your grove based on last week's water evapotranspiration (ET). You can get to CIMIS by using several methods; for avocado growers the best method is to use the irrigation calculator on the www.avocado.org website. If you need further instruction on this, you can call our office and ask for the Avocado Irrigation Calculator Step by Step paper. You need to know the application rater of your mini-sprinklers and the distribution uniformity of your grove's irrigation system.
- CIMIS tells you how much water to apply, but you need tensiometers, soil probes or shovels to tell you when to water.
- “Smart Controllers” have been used successfully in landscape and we have used one very successfully in an avocado irrigation trial The one we used allowed us to enter the crop coefficient for avocado into the device, and daily ET information would come in via a cell phone connection. When the required ET (multiplied automatically by the crop coefficient) reached the critical level, the irrigation system would come on, and then shut down when the required amount had been applied. Increased precision can be obtained by fine tuning these devices with the irrigation system precipitation (application) rate.
3. Deficit Irrigation.
- Deficit irrigation is the practice of applying less water than the ET of the crop or plant materials. Deficit irrigation is useful for conserving water in woody landscape ornamentals and drought tolerant plants where crop yield is not an issue. Water conserved in these areas may be re-allocated to other areas on the farm or landscape.
- There hasn't been enough research on deficit irrigation of avocado for us to comment. We suspect, however, that deficit irrigation will simply lead to dropped fruit and reduced yield.
- Stumping the avocado tree could be considered a form of deficit irrigation. In this case, the tree should be stumped in the spring, painted with white water-based paint to reflect heat, and the sprinkler can be capped for at least 2 months. As the tree starts to re-grow, some water should be added back, probably about 10-20% of the normal water use of a mature tree.
- Regulated Deficit Irrigation for Citrus is an important method for saving water, and in some cases will reduce puff and crease of the peel. In one orange trial done by Dr. David Goldhammer in the San JoaquinValley, an application of 25% of ETc from mid-May to Mid July saved about 25% of applied water for the year and reduced crease by 67%, without appreciably reducing yield.
- 4. Reduce Irrigated Area.
- Taking trees out of production. Trees that are chronically diseased and do not produce fruit (or the fruit is poor quality) should be taken out of production during this period. Also consider: trees in frosty areas, trees in wind-blown areas, trees near eucalyptus and other large trees that steal the water from the fruit trees.
- Changing crops. You may want to take out those Valencias during this period and replant to something that brings in more money, like seedless, easy-peeling mandarins. The young trees will be using a lot less water.
- Fallow Opportunities. You may decide to do some soil preparation, tillage or cultivation, or even soil solarization of non-irrigated areas.
We have found that this four step process is a logical way to achieve water cutbacks with least impact. It is possible to achieve a ten percent reduction in water by only improving irrigation system uniformity and scheduling procedures. Often, these two measures also result in better crop performance and reduced runoff. Reducing irrigated area or taking areas out of production should be a last resort and a well thought out decision. Plan for the future, hopefully water will be more available in future years.
Ground urban organic material that shows up in great trailers for use in agriculture has simple rules for its use. 1) It should be a material low in contaminants. If you can clearly see golf balls and plastic, send it back. Over time with decomposition it is only going to become clearer because all the organics go away and all you are left with is a mess to clean up. 2) If used as a mulch (applied to the surface of the soil), it should be as woody material as possible, because it is more persistent and lasts longer and the roots which adjust to the mulch layer are less likely to be disturbed. 3) If it is used as a material to be incorporated into the soil IT MUST BE COMPOSTED. This cannot be emphasized enough. With decomposition, gasses such as methane, ethylene and ammonia are released which are all toxic to roots and it heats up, also which is hard on roots- like it burns the heck out of them. This goes for the material used as a mulch, it should be kept at least 6 inches away from tree trunks so that gasses and heat don't burn the trunks. And 4) no organic material should be incorporated into the planting hole, composted or non. This is one of those myths (planting mix in planting holes) that have been foist on gardeners and farmers alike. If it is organic it is good? Any organic material incorporated into a planting hole is going to decompose over time, and then the soil settles, causing voids. Much better to plant into the mineral soil and mulch and let the worms move any nutrients from the organic surface material into the root zone.
And remember that fresh citrus leaves and stems can harbor Asian citrus psyllid. Dry that material out before moving it around so you don't spread the psyllid.