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Soil Moisture Probes Aid Potato Growers with Irrigation

by Dave Wilkins, Staff Writer
Capital Press - September 20, 2002

REXBURG, Idaho -- Remote soil moisture probes are helping farmers eliminate much of the guesswork involved in irrigating potatoes.

The new technology is helping growers better manage their water usage, making for better yields and a more uniform crop.

The electronic probes -- some linked to the Internet -- are place right next to a potato plant in the most uniform part of the field.

The devices continuously monitor soil moisture data throughout the day.

The information can be relayed to a telemetry unit so growers can access it via the Internet anytime they want on a personal computer.

"You can actually watch the water usage of that plant during the day," said Philip Webb, a representative for Simplot Soilbuilders in Rupert, Idaho.

Simplot has been offering the Agrilink probes for several years, but this was the first year the company has worked with Idaho growers to install units that are linked to the Internet.

Information collected by the probes is made available through AgWISE, an Agrilink service that provides agricultural weather, irrigation, salinity and environmental monitoring via the Internet.

Webb recommends that growers use one probe per pivot, or about 100 acres, in the most uniform part of the field.

Results over the past several years using the probes have shown increase yields and quality compared with simply "shooting from the hip," Webb said.

The technology continues to get better each year, he said.

"Soon we'll have sensors in fields that will tell you your nitrogen level," Webb said.

But during a recent field day Webb added a note of caution about relying to heavily on technology.

"This doesn't replace the shovel and the guy in the field," he said.

Changed Irrigation
Lawrence Jensen has been using the probes the past two years on his potato fields on the Rexburg Bench. His irrigation scheduling has changed as a result.

"We're watering a lot more early and a lot less later," Jensen said.

The changes have helped Jensen produce a more uniform crop, with fewer rough, knobby tubers. He's test dug as many as 23 hills and gotten only three rough spuds out of the whole bunch.

Continuous monitoring of soil moisture also can provide environmental benefits, experts said.

Water Quality
Applying just the right amount of irrigation water when needed can help prevent leaching of fertilizers and pesticides into the groundwater.

That's important because more and more environmental groups are watching groundwater quality, with an eye on agriculture as the main pollution source, said Bryan Hopkins, a University of Idaho Extension potato cropping system specialist from Idaho Falls.

"The water quality issue isn't going away," Hopkins told growers during the field day.

Potato production is a relatively high input cropping system, said Hopkins, who is working on a program to develop new Best Management Practices guidelines for potato production in the Northwest.

Pesticide and fertilizer inputs comprise nearly 40 percent of the average cost of potato production, he said.

"As a result, potato producers are one of the principal users of agricultural chemicals in the Pacific Northwest and, in fact, are the single largest users in the state of Idaho," Hopkins said.

Dave Wilkins, Capital Press Staff Writer
Soil Moisture Probes Aid Potato Growers with Irrigation
Capital Press - September 20, 2002

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