S6:E4 Soil Moisture Probes and In Season Solutions with Betsy Bower

Apr 11, 2023

Show Notes

While the percentage of farms with irrigations remains relatively low across Indiana and Michigan, the impact of managing water on crops throughout the growing season is significant. Historically, when making the decision on when to water, growers would walk their fields and scout the environment to make this decision. Now, with advancements in sensors and data processing, technology has changed the way these decisions are made.  

Ceres Solutions works alongside CropX to manage irrigated acres. CropX provides moisture probes that are inserted into the field’s soil. Through constant monitoring and reporting via a digital dashboard, the agronomist can use this feedback to make recommendations on when to water.  

“The reason that we got started with CropX is there were several soil water probes on the market, but they were the only one that was giving a recommendation to customers. It sets a soil moisture budget on a farm that farmers do not have to manage themselves, and because we're in rain fit areas, we do [a recommendation] twice a week just to sort of get set up for the week and then for the weekend,” shared Betsy. 

“We're all about the agronomic side of things. We ensure we've got good nutrition that we're protecting the crop water is going to be the same way. We want to help them with that decision making.” 

This is part of the In Season Solutions program offered from Ceres Solutions. In Season Solutions incorporates the moisture recommendations on irrigated acres, along with tissue sampling and Nitrogen testing at designated times throughout the growing season.  

“Our In Season Solutions product is a way that we can look at nutrition in our crops. We do that by taking a tissue in corn and soybeans, and then in corn we add a soil nitrogen test,” started Betsy. “Those tests are taken at predetermined times during the growing season in both corn and soybeans. Of course, we can do other crops.” 

In season tools help take the guess-work out of management decisions. To learn more about in season management option and how moisture probes can benefit drylands acres, tune into our full episode of Field Points or reach out to your local Ceres Solutions professional.  


Morgan Seger (00:03): 

Every day we rely on food, fuel, and fiber. But how much do you know about these industries we depend on? In this podcast, we dive deep into the production and processes of these everyday essentials. This is field points and original podcast production from Siri Solutions. Welcome to Field Points. I'm your host, Morgan Seger. This is the fourth episode of our sixth series and our sixth series is focused on technology and agronomy. Throughout this series, I'm joined by the digital technology manager at Sirius Solutions, Matt Clark. And on today's episode, we are going to take a close look at the technology we're using on irrigated acres that help growers make smarter decisions about when to water the Ceres solutions agronomists spend a lot of time really hands-on with growers throughout this process. Today on the show I'm joined by Betsy Bower. Betsy was on in episode two of our first series focused on stewardship and agronomy, and we're thrilled to have her back to share information about managing irrigated acres. Throughout this episode, we'll talk about the technology that we can use to better manage irrigated acres, and we will also walk through In Season Solutions provided by Ceres. But first, let's meet our guest today, Betsy Bower. 

Betsy Bower (01:17): 

My name is Betsy Bower and I'm an agronomist in region four of Sirius Solutions. 

Matt Clark (01:22): 

So today I think we want to discuss with Betsy primarily around our irrigation monitoring system, and then also kind of hit on our in season solution programs and dive into what we're doing there and what kind of insights we can deliver to growers through those programs. 

Morgan Seger (01:35): 

We kick off this conversation discussing the technology that we use to better understand what's going on in the soil for those irrigated acres. How 

Betsy Bower (01:44): 

Are we helping that irrigated customer? We are actually using soil moisture monitoring probes that are installed in the soil between two plants to get a feel for how dry the soil is, understand where the roots are, and then to make a recommendation based on if the soil moisture has gotten too low for what we feel the crop is needing. And we didn't come to that irrigation monitoring, just aha, we need to monitor irrigation. It happened to be through one of our other products that we use in the summer, and that's tissue sampling in the in-season solutions program. And so as we started understanding nutrition in crop out, oh, it's going to be 15 years ago, the two nutrients that we found were missing were sulfur and zinc on a micronutrient secondary nutrient. Of course we were monitoring nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, but the two key insights were sulfur and zincs. 


And so with zinc we added it to our soil sampling package with sulfur. We knew that we were predominantly finding in our sandy soils and we looked at center pivots and what we still had available to get some sulfur on the crop. And then we were able to start adding sulfur in a ion situation with nitrogen. And from there our irrigated customer asked us how much water do we put on? And I said, I don't know. Let's see if we can figure that out. And so then that's when we started adopting or using soil moisture probes. And so because of that question, how much do we put on? Then we worked, we started working with crop metrics at the time, which is part of crop X now, or crop X and crop metrics merged and it was a simple device that is a bank of sensors that are in a bank of sensors. 


What I mean is it's a long cylindrical tube that have sensors every four inches and we start with a sensor two inches below the ground. We've got three foot and four foot length, so we can install 'em between two plants. We can then get a feel for what the roots are finding because those bank of sensors are in a probe, don't have to disturb the soil in multiple places. And so you understand what the roots are and the soil moisture is in a three foot zone or a four foot zone, their capacitance probe. So they are sending on a signal into the soil and then as soils dry, that signal will change. And so that's how we understand that a soil is too dry. So it's sort of sending out, Hey, where are we today? And the message comes back, well, we're a little drier. 


And so as we get drier and dryer and we understand where the roots are pulling moisture, and then we actually work on a soil moisture budget, so the soil moisture at the top of the soil moisture budget with there's a line on each probe and it is 95% of field capacity or field capacity. And then we've got a lower red line and that's showing about 70, 75% of field capacity. And so as we get towards that lower line, that's when we trigger an irrigation. That being said, that's a conservative measurement. So if an irrigator would happen to break down, we could certainly get below that threshold that we've set and it probably won't affect yield, but when you understand how large some of these pivots are, it takes four days to make a turn with an inch of water. You sort of have to allow it not to get too dry and make that recommendation so that you aren't too far below that line that might be impacting yield. 


So then what we do is we are, it's an electronic device, meaning that there's electricity or electrical conduit to a telemetry box. A telemetry box allows us to then send all of that information to the cloud on a cell phone app or on a desktop app. The farmer and ourselves are able to look at each one of those probes and there is a nice little graph that allows him to understand, am I getting too dry? Am I just fine? Am I too wet? And we make a recommendation twice a week on if that grower needs water for the week and we make a recommendation that sorta allows us to, okay, it looks like we're a little dry, you might want to think about irrigation unless this rain that's forecasted comes through and then we might not need irrigation 

Morgan Seger (06:05): 

Where the probe is located in the field can make a big difference in the reading and the information that it gives you. Next, Betsy walks us through how they determine the best location for these probes. 

Betsy Bower (06:16): 

It is one probe per field and how we look at one probe per field is that we're looking for how the majority acre behaves of that crop that is under either a single pivot or half of a pivot. The majority a soil type or we look at yield, we look at some aerial imagery in the past so we understand, okay, we are getting information for the majority acre that's underneath that pivot that's going to influence overall yield. And the other thing that we look at is it is going to be at the end of the pivot where the majority acre is going to be watered, so that end tower or within the two end three towers. As you think about a pivot and you think about that circle of a center pivot, then the majority acre is going to be more on the outside, not on the inside. So towards the end of the pivot where it's coming out, well, that water is very inconsistent in delivery. 

Matt Clark (07:17): 

So the very end of the pivot is where yes, makes sense. It's mo where most of your acres are, and then that's where you're put between the last set of wheels essentially is what you're 

Betsy Bower (07:24): 

Doing. Exactly, exactly. We've got the sensor placed where we think is the optimal spot, and so it might take a full turn to hit the sensor. We don't set the sensor to where the pivot is because some of these pivots only make a half turn or three quarters of a turn, and then they've got to reverse themselves. And so you're just putting in the spot that you think is a good reflection of the water and you're making a recommendation based on where we are to that lower threshold. And you get some insights from customers on, okay, I want to stay here because it takes me so long to get around, et cetera. Within that threshold, 

Morgan Seger (08:01): 

Once the probes have been placed in the best location for that field, they start gathering data. This information is then delivered through a dashboard through Crop X and helps inform the agronomist so they can make the best recommendations for your field. 

Betsy Bower (08:16): 

It is, so crop X organizes the data extremely well. You can set up a pivot so that you get a recommendation that says Safe to water, no do not water. And that has been an evolution of crop metrics to crop X to just thinking on down the road, making it easier for the professional water manager, so to speak. It has at the start of using soil moisture probes, it was an agronomist making that recommendation. We were trained in how to look for when a field needs to be irrigated, et cetera, and that with some of their artificial intelligence that they're developing from the soil, then there can be a recommendation that's safe to water or do not water, but how much water and when, so there's still a person behind it. I 

Matt Clark (09:07): 

Think that's a really important hit on this too, is I think with this whole irrigation monitor program, I think the real value to the grower is your opinion, Tori's opinion, Jeff's opinion on these watering recommendations. I think that's the most valuable part to come out of all this is just your guys' input in looking at those sensors and determining water. 

Betsy Bower (09:25): 

I would agree because there are a lot of situations where we might need to water because of a certain circumstance, even though it may be not quite ready yet to water, we might need to put on some verion. And so we need to understand, okay, when do we have room in that verion? Where do we have room in the soil? Can we go ahead and put on that? So we might have some nutrition timing and a lot of our customers, when we think about Indiana, we're 15% irrigated. We don't necessarily always get a lot of knowledge about irrigation when we go to Purdue just because it's such a small part of Indiana, but it's one we can manage, and so our customers are pretty hungry for irrigation knowledge and having that person that you can discuss things with either through email or call or a text or something has been pretty valuable because we're looking at the fine nuances that maybe our customers, they really don't have the time to look at. They've got other things that they need to manage on the farm, and so we help them manage some of those things. We 

Matt Clark (10:22): 

Talk about placement of the pro, but what about year over year? I mean, you've done this a number of years now. Do you consistently go back to the same places every year with that sensor? And then what kind of data sets have you built on certain fields over years that have led you to different insights? 

Betsy Bower (10:36): 

So year over year, if both the customer and ourselves feel like it's been a good position in the field, and I do ask every year, is the spot that we've got located, do you feel like it's given this the information that we need? And sometimes we move it, a lot of times we don't. So year over year we try to put it in the same spot, but we do figure out quite quick, especially in rained areas, that our weather is not the same year after year. And so when we talk about using soil moisture probes, the whole goal is sort of put water on when we need it and not when we don't need it. We know that there's going to be years that we're going to be doing more irrigating than other years. And so the database that we've got built is sort of allows us to look back in time and know when we made that irrigation recommendation discussions at the end of the year with the customer, allow us to understand how he felt that irrigation year went and if we need to make any changes, et cetera. So the year over year is still valuable, but we do find out in rained areas that some years are dry, some years are wet, but the probe allows you to see what's going on underneath the soil. So we make a recommendation based on some of that. 

Morgan Seger (11:43): 

So the positioning in the field is very important to get a representative data set. Next we're going to talk about which crops these sensors can be placed in to make recommendations and how they can even have a play on dryland acres. 

Betsy Bower (11:57): 

The majority of the probes are going in corn acres, but we have a lot of crops that we can put soil moisture probes in. All of us have, we've put it in tomato crops where we have tomatoes in the area, we've put it in popcorn watermelons, cantaloupe. And so anything that's an irrigated acre, we can place a probe and make a recommendation. What we've got to understand is, okay, what are the critical times that each one of those crops needs water? But if we understand that, then we can make a recommendation. We've also put some of these in dry landfills. We have a probe of with a bank of about three sensors that's a little less expensive than the Bank of Forbes that are either three or four feet long. And so we've put 'em in some dry land fields because guys are interested to know, okay, where are my roots? How dry did it get? And when we get rainfall, is my field capturing all the rainfall or is it running off some of those things? So we can't put in dry land fields too. 

Matt Clark (12:49): 

What's something that you've learned in all these years of doing irrigation monitoring that you've been able to apply to your agronomics on general dry land management? 

Betsy Bower (13:00): 

So some of the things that I've learned is that the importance of having good soil moisture to move nutrition into roots. Some of the key things that we've learned is as we start to get a little drier, even though it may not be too dry for the corn crop, meaning that the corn is still finding moisture, all of our nutrition is sorta in that upper six inches of soil, and so we can start to see the tissue test get a little low in nitrogen and sulfur. Some of those first nutrients that are being pulled in the plant by mass flow and being pulled into the plant by mass flow is when the plant is taking up water from the soil, then the nutrients that are dissolved in the water come in. So what we have found is that we can get dry enough that we can limit nutrient uptake or slow nutrient uptake, but we still are not too dry for the crop. And so there's been some times early in the season, especially in corn, that we might recommend just a little short half inch of water versus a full LY or three quarters just to move some of that nutrition to roots, especially when it's during some of that V five V six when we're trying to think about rows around on corn and starting to think about how long those rows are going to be in. 

Morgan Seger (14:13): 

Now we're going to transition into how we can use this data from the irrigation sensors in conjunction with the other data that we are getting from in-season solutions, a program offered through Ceres. 

Matt Clark (14:25): 

One thing we've been trying to do with some of the in-season stuff is build some insights, and so we're trying to build some trend data sets that especially is we've got growers have been doing this for several years trying to build trends out for the tissue samples throughout the year to help make better in season decisions for sure. So 

Betsy Bower (14:41): 

Our In Season Solutions product is a way that we can look at nutrition in our crops. So we do that by taking a tissue in corn and soybeans, and then in corn we add a soil nitrogen test. And so those tests are taken at predetermined times during the growing season in both corn and soybeans. Of course, we can do other crops. We're just going to talk a little bit about corn and soybeans. So in corn, we take about two to three vegetative stages. We take tissue tests and we also take some nitrogen tests during those vegetative stages. So in corn is like a V five and then there's one at V nine and V 10, and in the irrigated acre we take another one at about V 13, somewhere in there, V12 V 13 because we can plan for a verion at that point in time. 


Then we take one at R one, which is tasing pollen shed. Some of that time period, that's when we really are going into reproduction where the pollen is fertilizing that ear for the avial that's going to be the grain. And so the university, it has set some levels in the tissues that we need to attain, and if we are still a little low in nitrogen and sulfur, we can still make some changes in corn. In soybeans, it's primarily one vegetative stage that we take a tissue test. Most of the things that's interesting that's happening in a soybean and others may disagree with me, but it's during the reproductive stages. So we take one at R one, R three and R four, R five on soybeans. The nitrogen test, as I said earlier, is just pretty much in corn, although we followed it some in wheated as well, but we do have some university data that allows us to know at a certain stage, nitrogen that's in the upper foot of soil, is there sufficient that we can meet yield goals in corn? 


It can make a difference. We can add micronutrients, we can add sulfur, we can add nitrogen and some of the macronutrients like phosphorus and potassium, but know that a lot of those things are soil applied, so we might be a little bit on the two late sites. So it allows us to make some changes in crop. Then taken three or four tissue tests during the whole year allows us to look at sorta at the end of the season we can start making a recommendation for any missing nutrition that we might need to adjust our soil phosphorus and potassium programs with. We can do a sort of small changes in season, but then at the end of the season, if potassium was low, every single tissue test, well, we might think that maybe our soil potassium program was a little low and so we could adjust for the next season. And that's how it's really worked in some parts of our territory is to look at what you could do in season, but then look at adjusting from season to season. Those needs by following the tissue test 

Morgan Seger (17:29): 

In addition to the in season data, all of this information can be combined with the soil test data. 

Matt Clark (17:35): 

You're looking at all the different pieces of the puzzle there and just trying to come up with what the best program for that crop is. 

Betsy Bower (17:40): 

Yes. And so the soil test gives us an understanding of what's in the soil, and then the tissue test allows us to understand, okay, is it getting into the plant and are there certain circumstances that we might need to perhaps on some fields we started out fairly low regarding soil P and K, and we then did the tissue testing. So we can see that it's not necessarily getting into the prop. Well, maybe we need to ramp some of those recommendations up a little bit Might. We might want to do some early season spring applications of phosphorus and potassium and then come follow with something that's in crop. We do that on some of our sandy soils as some of that spoon feeding. Start with a little bit of nutrition up front and then follow through with some post emergence once the corn crop or soybeans are up. So those are some of the other insights that we've gained is a few years ago we were pretty much pre-plant phosphorus and potassium on all of our crops, and now we understand that, hey, if we miss that pre-plant opportunity, we have found that we can place some of this nutrition in crop and still see good yield results. 

Morgan Seger (18:51): 

Next, Betsy walks us through why Ceres chose to work with Crop Metrics and Crop X over other competitors in the marketplace. 

Betsy Bower (18:59): 

The reason that we got started with crop metrics is there were several soil water probes on the market, but they were the only one that was giving a recommendation to customers. And I knew working with customers that a probe that set a soil moisture budget on a farm that farmers had other things that they were doing on the farm, they were side dressing, putting it on post emergence crop protection applications. They were doing so many other things that that's not one thing that they wanted to try to manage themselves. And so using a company that was going to follow through with a recommendation at least once a week because we're in rain fit areas, we do it twice a week just to sort of get set up for the week and then for the weekend. We knew that was one of the things they didn't feel as confident in making that decision, so why don't we help them with that decision? And we're all about the agronomic side of things. We ensure we've got good nutrition that we're protecting the crop water is going to be the same way. We want to help them with that decision making. The agronomist group does help manage some of those probes, so we are working with anywhere from 30 to 40 probes to maybe a half a dozen depending on the area. 

Matt Clark (20:11): 

Probably around a hundred ish as a company. Yes, a year. 

Betsy Bower (20:14): 

Yep. Yep. Gotcha. Yep. We started out with about 20 our first year, then quickly ramped up to 60, and then over the last few years it's been in that a hundred yeah or so range. And we're working with fields anywhere from southwest Indiana, west Central Northwest, and even into Michigan. 

Morgan Seger (20:32): 

If you are listening to this and you're interested in learning more or participating in the in-Season Solutions program, Betsy shares how to get more information 

Betsy Bower (20:42): 

To get more information on our in-season solutions, our soil moisture probes in the irrigation program that we offer. Just need to see your local Ceres professional. We do like to get a feeling for how many fields that we are going to be tissue sampling or putting in soil moisture probes, but know that anytime, if you're interested in doing some tissue sampling to try to dive in a little bit deeper on crop nutrition in your fields. Know that we can take an order flare up to sampling, so no issues there. We can do some single, you just want to look at some nutrition and crops and take a single tissue test or a single sole nitrogen test. We can do some of those things as well and we can do some weekly tissue sampling. We do have a few guys that really enjoy some of that weekly tissue sampling that we do on some of our crops because that allows us to see some of the influence that our weather may have on nutrients getting into the plant. So we've got some other things that we can do. We offer also offer some in-season nematode sampling as well that we're, we can take a nematode sample and get it sent off to understand if there's any nematode issues. 

Morgan Seger (21:46): 

So gone are the days of watching your neighbors to determine when you should turn your pivots on. These moisture sensors along with the in-Season solutions program, through Ceres are tools that help you understand what's going on in your field and in your plants so you can make the best decisions when it's time to make that call. If you enjoyed this conversation, please leave us a rating in review wherever you find your podcast. And a big thank you to Betsy for joining us again on this series. 


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