RESPEC Tests "Farmers Friend," New Soil Moisture Sensor

May, 2018 — Most of today’s small farmers cannot afford expensive, high-tech soil moisture instruments. This was reason enough to seize the opportunity to modernize moisture reading for farmers while simplifying instrument design. In the past, the Benton SWCD would travel to the individual fields approximately once a week to gather soil moisture readings. This process was extremely time consuming and Traveling across large areas, farmers wasted valuable hours to take a single reading, and would then guesstimate how much to water their crops. Any over-and under-watering could be costly.

RESPEC’s goal was to cut costs dramatically by creating a user-friendly application the average farmer could use from anywhere. Thanks to this innovation, farmers are now able to log in remotely from a cell phone or laptop, view the current moisture level in a field, and choose the best level of irrigation. Successfully tested last summer, RESPEC’s new soil moisture instrument allows farmers to remotely take multiple readings per day, instead of once a week in the field.

Making use of today’s inexpensive and ubiquitous cell phone technology, RESPEC’s affordable soil moisture sensor allows farmers to easily and accurately manage the water levels of their fields. This simple instrument significantly increases water balance accuracy and saves the user time, labor, and the cost of potentially over or under applying water. RESPEC’s soil moisture instrument also ties into local weather and science stations because, according to Oswald, “Farmers are information driven and always look for what’s missing.” He explained the basis of his sensor concept, “It’s all about working smart to gather data, send data back to the database for storage, and give access to users in near real-time.”

What does the “farmer’s friend” sensor look like in the field? Oswald describes the simple instrument as a small 6” x 6” box, mounted with a solar panel and GPS on a lightweight post. The easy-installation tube is pressed into soil where the sensor measures electro-conductivity resistance based on how much moisture is in the soil. Radio signals send moisture measurement data to a centralized database for storage and then on to the user’s phone. Typically, one sensor is needed per 160 acres if the soil is homogenous—if not, Oswald says additional sensors can be added to cover multiple types of soil.

RESPEC is enthusiastic about installing 20 of their beta version instruments in Minnesota, in partnership with the Benton County Soil and Water Conservation District. The RESPEC/Benton SWCD effort will last through the irrigation season, beginning in May. The information collected from the beta test will also benefit RESPEC’s Benton County Irrigation Scheduler project, now completing development, with project extension planned for five more Minnesota counties. Hired by the district in 2015, RESPEC created an Irrigation Management Assistant app. The web-based, mobile-friendly, irrigation-scheduling application quantifies and shows users how proven conservation practices and calculated decisions can reduce the environmental impact of irrigation while realizing benefits of increased yield and reduced irrigation input costs.

Feeding valuable decision-making data to the Irrigation Scheduler App, this technology has the potential to save 5 – 20% of the water volume used, in addition to the associated cost of pumping water out of the ground. “Our sensor instrument shows real numbers and real data for managing water balance. We are pleased to offer farmers evidence of doing a good job in the field.” RESPEC’s new soil moisture sensor is quickly gaining a nationwide reputation as the “farmer’s friend.”

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