The area of ‘abnormally dry’ or ‘moderate drought’ was reduced by 5% in Nebraska as of 5/8/18 compared to the previous week.
Today was interesting driving my route through the southern tier of counties I serve. Wearing overboots and walking instead of driving to the sensors was welcome at Byron and Superior where heavier rain events occurred this week. However, Lawrence and Bladen had largely missed the rains. The Clay Center location received 1″ the past two days, but other areas of Clay County received very little. The farmers who have allowed me to monitor pre-plant soil moisture thus far were interested in watching this throughout the growing season. Thus, sensors will remain in most of these fields. Where fields have been planted thus far (other than Clay Center), planters have planted around the sensors and seeds have been hand-planted between sensors.
Some rains helped with the top foot profile at some of these locations last week. One thing to keep in mind when viewing these graphs is we don’t always know what’s going on below the soil surface. One farmer had a good point regarding my “blips in the graphs” in my last blog post. I mentioned they could be due to a soil crack along the PVC pipe-which we do see occur and can be true. However, he also had a good point that it could be a worm hole, root channel, etc. that water may have followed for a brief time period, which could also be true, especially in these long-term no-till fields. As you look at the charts this week, it’s important to keep in mind that soil water also moves via gravity (termed ‘gravitational water’). Thus, sometimes why we can see changes in soil moisture in the successive drier layer with small amounts of precipitation.
Here is an update on beginning soil moisture status. The left charts are as of 4/19/18 with the right charts being the previous week. You can click on the images to enlarge them. The ‘weekend moisture’ event I refer to was the blizzard 4/14/18.
Bladen: The top foot is now slowly losing moisture one week later in spite of some weekend moisture. The second-fourth feet are all above 50% depletion.
Byron: Some weekend moisture may have allowed the top foot to remain steady. The second and third feet are both over 50% depletion bringing the total soil moisture in the 1-4′ depths closer to 50% depletion. There must have been a soil crack along my PVC pipe to allow for the moisture spike you see in 3 and 4 feet and not 1 and 2 foot depths.
Clay Center: This is still the wettest location in spite of the top foot slowly drying out this week. The second foot is still below field capacity with third and fourth feet and total soil moisture relatively unchanged. Must have had a soil crack along PVC pipe for third foot for the quick dip observed.
Lawrence Corn Stubble: Minimal change was observed at this location this past week. Essentially all feet remained the same in regards to soil moisture. A small crack along PVC pipe must have been present at 3 foot for short dip observed there.
Lawrence Soybean Stubble: This location (across road from corn stubble) showing dryer than last week. Top two feet now dryer than field capacity which increased the total (1-3′) soil moisture depletion.
Superior: Weekend moisture may have allowed the top foot to stay steady (as was also seen in Byron). However, the second, third, and fourth feet all lost moisture leaving the total soil moisture (1-4′) above 35% depleted at this location.
The current Drought Monitor shows 19% of Nebraska in the “abnormally dry” or “moderate drought” categories and in the shadow of large-scale drought in Kansas (97%) and Colorado (88%). Being curious about beginning soil moisture in non-irrigated situations, I installed Watermark soil moisture sensors in six non-irrigated, no-till locations in Webster, Nuckolls, Thayer, and Clay counties.
This quantitative information can be helpful as growers make planning and planting decisions. Granted, most planting decisions have already been made with inputs already purchased. Spring rains are also typically expected. However, information like this can help a grower be flexible in that planning should anticipated rains not be timely.
- The grower may choose to plant a more drought-tolerant crop like sorghum or a more drought-tolerant corn hybrid.
- A grower with livestock may choose to plant a feed/forage crop.
- A grower may choose to not terminate a growing cover crop such as rye, instead growing it for feed.
Soil moisture sensors were installed at 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-foot depths in non-irrigated, no-till corn and soybean residue fields near Byron, Superior, Lawrence, Bladen, and Clay Center. The sensors were connected to Watermark dataloggers from the Irrometer company. Because the default soil temperature on the dataloggers is 70°F, a temperature sensor is also installed to ensure correct calibration of the soil moisture. This is because soil temperature during this time is dfferent (much lower) than 70°F.
Any farmer or crop consultant could do the same for his/her fields to determine the same information and wouldn’t need the datalogger. Taking weekly readings at the same time each week, or even daily at the same time, would also give one an idea of beginning soil moisture. It’s best to allow at least 48-72 hours for the sensors to equilibrate to the current soil moisture conditions. This process is essentially the same as when sensors are installed for irrigation scheduling. The difference is these are non-irrigated fields with no current crop growing. For additional information and videos on using watermark sensors, please see the Nebraska Agricultural Water Management Network website.
Nuckolls County is shown as in “moderate drought” on the Drought Monitor. At the Superior location, we were hoping to also install into actively growing rye and winter-killed forage to determine beginning soil moisture in those conditions. The rye is currently 6 inches tall in the tillering stage and the soil probe wouldn’t go in the ground beyond 6 inches, so no moisture sensors were installed. The soil probe would only go in 12 inches in the winter-killed forage consisting of sorghum-sudan and radishes; thus, soil moisture sensors weren’t installed in that field either.
Results so Far
During installation, the 3- and 4-foot depths at all locations (only 4-foot at Clay Center) seemed very dry. The soybean residue appeared drier than corn residue. Two sites are located near Lawrence, one in corn residue and one in soybean residue across the road from each other. That data shows differences in moisture between different residue types the most clearly. I was unable to install to the 4-foot depth at the Lawrence soybean residue location. At most other sites, a hammer was used to help install to 4 feet. However, given the difficulty in installing the 4-foot sensor, these graphs do not show them as dry or drier than the 3-foot at any location other than Bladen.
This could be due to several reasons:
- The soil textural properties at 4-foot depth could have more clay and higher soil bulk density in which the drier conditions would not be obvious or easily determined just by installation difficulty.
- There could be a compacted layer.
- The dryness or wetness of any given soil layer at any given time is a function of various factors including the farming history of the field, previous several years of root development in different layers, previous year’s precipitation amount and distribution during the season as well as during off-season, evaporation rate, and water uptake pattern of the crop from different soil layers as water update from different soil layers varies and also varies with time during the season.
- The 4-foot layer may not actually be drier than the 3-foot layer.
Because only a few days of data are shown thus far, it is difficult to make a determination at this time. Data will continue to be collected until each field is planted and the results will be posted weekly on my blog. Additional information regarding each location is in each figure caption.
A special thank you to each farmer cooperating with me on this effort and to Dr. Suat Irmak for providing additional equipment and advice on this effort.