PureSense soil moisture monitoring system offers big promise for cotton industry

• One of the biggest factors that reduces yields is not being able to maintain the proper soil moisture required for a particular cultivar, or cultivated variety of cotton.

Cotton producers face numerous challenges in trying to achieve successful yields.  

Weather, insect pressures and variable agronomic conditions all can have a significant impact on crop size.

One of the biggest factors that reduces yields is not being able to maintain the proper soil moisture required for a particular cultivar, or cultivated variety of cotton. In an effort to pin-point the best method for consistently monitoring soil moisture levels in planted acreage — and ultimately to identify the most drought-tolerant cotton cultivars to use in the face of dwindling water resources — research and promotion company, Cotton Incorporated, is sponsoring a very comprehensive and authoritative study on the topic.

In the study's latest phase, which began in the spring of 2012, plots were established in a number of regions across the Cotton Belt, including Lubbock, Texas; Marianna, Ark.; Maricopa, Ariz.; and Florence, S.C..  

Multiple cultivars — from early- to later-maturing varieties — were planted at each location. To obtain continuous, real-time data that accurately characterizes the soil moisture conditions in these test plots, Cotton Incorporated chose an innovative solution from PureSense, an industry-leader in remote irrigation monitoring, management and decision-support analysis.

"We were in the process of evaluating a number of systems from previous studies when we learned about PureSense solutions," said Ed Barnes, Director of Agricultural and Environmental Research at Cotton Incorporated. "Their system showed great promise and we incorporated it into our study."

To manage irrigation needs, cotton producers can use many different types of systems that monitor soil moisture: measuring plant canopy temperatures; using neutron probes to determine the amount of hydrogen in the soil; or tracking highly complex matric water potential.  

PureSense solutions rely on a series of soil-monitoring sensors placed at various distances and depths of up to 60 inches that can precisely measure moisture, temperature and salinity and transmit the data wirelessly to a centralized monitoring point.

PureSense can pinpoint soil moisture levels from rain events or irrigation to help researchers accurately analyze which cotton cultivars perform the best under a range of irrigated or non-irrigated, near-drought conditions.

"PureSense presented three key opportunities. First and foremost, it allows producers to get the data they need without an engineering degree. Second, the system integrates data from all four widely dispersed sites for more effective analysis. And third, the PureSense solution works with an array of sensors which enabled us to continue using the Decagon EC Series sensors we had been happy with in a previous study."

To-date, the study is proceeding very well, according to Barnes. This year, the primary focus is on identifying a remote monitoring and decision-support system that will be economical and efficient for cotton producers nationwide.  

Once the right system has been identified, project investigators will work to create a viable stress index that can be used to distinguish various drought-tolerant cotton cultivars —to effectively identify which varieties will provide the highest yields under stressful water conditions.

This is especially critical in light of the recent declaration by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that drought-stricken states throughout the southern U.S. — from California to Florida — represent the nation's largest natural disaster area ever.

"Cotton producers know water is a very precious and expensive resource," Barnes commented. "Studies have shown that every inch of irrigation a producer is short, yields can be decreased by as much as 70 pounds per acre. In the past, we've under-valued the importance of precise irrigation scheduling. “PureSense systems and other similar tools represent a way for producers to more accurately manage their irrigation. While the Cotton Incorporated study has a ways to go, the PureSense has been a very satisfactory tool for us."

For additional information about the company, visit http://www.PureSense.com.

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