Justin Stahl, farm manager for Sachs Farms in Wheaton, Mo., installed a new center pivot after the drought of 2018. Though last summer was wet, moisture-probe data allowed Stahl to see the corn needed more water near the end of the season.
Data from the moisture probe is transmitted to the growers’ MyJohnDeere account, which integrates with their precision equipment.
Becker and Kliethermes connect rain gauge and moisture probe sensors to a control panel known as the gateway. It collects readings every 30 minutes and wirelessly transmits to the grower’s account every two hours.
The Crop-Trak Complete program, which combines MFA’sprecision grid-sampling and scouting consultation, offers moisture probes and analysis as an add-on service for growers who irrigate.
MFA precision specialist Austin Kliethermes augers a hole to install a moisture probe on a trial field near Jefferson City, Mo. A slurry of dirt and water acts as “temporary concrete” to hold the probe in place during the growing season. Also pictured are Natural Resources Conservation Specialist Adam Jones, middle, and Precision Data Manager Thad Becker, right.
With all the precipitation last summer, Justin Stahl, farm manager for Sachs Farms, LLC, in Wheaton, Mo., thought his two new pivot irrigation systems would go unused. But Stahl had signed up for MFA’s soil moisture probe trial.
The data surprised him.
“It was wet down here,” Stahl said. “Without knowing what was going on in the soil, you would have thought we had enough water, but it was amazing how much we actually had to put on toward the end of the season.”
The unpredictable weather of the previous two years has many farmers like Stahl wondering how to manage their water, whether there’s too much or too little available to crops. That’s why MFA and Sydenstricker Nobbe Partners, a John Deere dealership group in Missouri and Illinois, have teamed up to offer moisture probes as a tool to irrigate more precisely.
“Irrigation isn’t a huge player in our trade area,” Precision Data Manager Thad Becker said. “But there are pockets here and there. This partnership gives us the opportunity to provide growers who irrigate another option through our Crop-Trak Complete program.”
Moisture probes aren’t new, Becker added. The technology has been available for close to 10 years, and MFA Crop-Trak agronomists do consult with growers about irrigated acres. Teaming up with Sydenstricker Nobbe Partners allows both companies to leverage their strengths. MFA has the agronomic expertise, and John Deere has the equipment.
“MFA serves growers who are precision-minded,” said Neal Raymer, integrated solutions consultant for Sydenstricker Nobbe Partners in Macon, Mo., who worked with Becker on this partnership. “It was a good fit for us because we can provide the equipment expertise if a grower has questions on how to use it, but MFA can provide growers with the agronomic knowledge and help interpret the data.”
Last year, MFA placed 15 probes as part of the trial. While the probes can measure soil moisture and rainfall, Raymer said there are add-ons such as temperature gauges, insect traps and leaf-wetness sensors for disease modeling.
“It’s almost like a small weather station,” Becker said. “It basically works like a cell phone with an antenna that sends data back to a computer.”
Each probe is placed either a meter or half-meter down in the soil and has a sensor at specific increments to indicate moisture levels in the field at varied depths. To install the probes, a slurry of soil and water is mixed, setting the probe in the dirt for the season. Each winter the probe is pulled and housed inside a temperature-controlled environment.
On Sachs Farm in southwest Missouri, the MFA precision team installed one probe in a corn field and another in double-crop soybeans.
Shannon McClintock, Region 5 Crop-Trak consulting area sales manager, worked with Stahl to analyze the data. McClintock scouts the 100% no-till farm where Stahl grows corn, wheat, soybeans and some cover crops. Describing the soil as “well-draining, even thin and rocky in places,” McClintock said they opted to use the half-meter probes.
Though the farm experienced ample amounts of rainfall in spring and even into June and July, in late August the probe told a different story.
“With the soil profile and drainage down here, we probably would have ran short of moisture if we weren’t using the probes,” McClintock said. “Near the end of the season when the corn was in reproductive stages, we could see it was using a lot of water. At that point, we turned on the pivot and were able to finish off the corn and keep up the test weights.”
It took the guesswork out of the irrigation schedule, and that’s big, according to Stahl.
“We installed those two pivots to be able to help combat drought years,” Stahl said. “But one of the biggest benefits of the probe is you can see what the crop is using. Then you can look at the forecast and make a decision to put water on or not. It isn’t cheap to pump water.”
From January 2019 to January 2020, 73 inches of precipitation fell where Stahl lives. In a year of flooding, without the data from the moisture probe, neither McClintock or Stahl said they would have thought to turn on the pivot.
“Having access to this data helped us optimize yields even in a wet year,” McClintock said. “It’s definitely a good tool to have in our toolbox.”
MFA’s Precision Agriculture Department and Sydenstricker Nobbe Partners plan to continue the soil moisture probe program in 2020. For more information, contact your MFA precision specialist or your local MFA or AGChoice facility.
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