Thank you to Tena with Faller Landscape in York and to all the youth who participated in our 4-H landscape design workshop and helped plant the Nebraska area! It will hopefully be beautiful for fair!
Crop Update: Rain continues to be spotty and windstorms have resulted in various levels of greensnap in some fields. Overall crops are growing and getting a decent canopy. It’s been interesting watching the radar on weather apps as so often they look like precipitation should be occurring yet that’s not always the case. Grateful for all of you who share crop updates-including things such as impacts on hay crops, pastures, etc. and for our farmers working with me on soil moisture monitoring. I was told this past week of the impact of our groundtruthing on the drought monitor; radar would make it appear we’re not as dry as we truly are. So just wanted to share that with you-that your input is important as we then share that input with those who work with the models and maps! I plan to get soil moisture sensors installed in non-irrigated fields in York, Seward, and Clay this week as well.
Soil Moisture Sensors Tips: With cultivating and hilling progressing, some are now looking at getting soil moisture sensors installed. If you utilize watermark sensors, the following are some tips I’ve learned.
Test sensors with wet/dry process to remove all air bubbles:
- First, make sure sensors read 199.
- Then, soak sensors for at least 24 hours. They should read 10 or less (Jenny’s note-I realize they may read this in a matter of minutes to hours but it’s our best practice recommendation to ensure all air bubbles are removed).
- If they don’t read 10 or less, gently rub any soil loose on them with your fingers (don’t use a brush) and allow to continue soaking for another 24-48 hours. If they still don’t read under 10, I don’t use them.
- Best practice is to then allow the sensors to completely dry out again to 199 to complete the wet/dry process. (Jenny’s note: I realize, due to time constraints, many sensors get installed once they have been soaking and never go through the complete drying process).
- Avoid installing sensors in saturated soil conditions in clayey soils. Doing so allows a thin clay film to develop on the sensors which then affects readings .
- Prior to installation, the sensors should be soaked again and installed wet. The soaking process only takes a matter of minutes to get back to 10 or below. I carry the water bucket with sensors with me into the field.
- When soaking, water moves into the PVC pipe, thus it can take time for the water to drain providing accurate readings if not removed. Some sensors have a hole drilled in the PVC pipe above the sensor to allow water to drain. Otherwise, it’s important to remove the caps and tip the sensors over to dump any water that has accumulated in the PVC pipe during the soaking process. I then put the cap back on, take my hand and wet the PVC pipe with water so it pushes in easier. Some like to use WD-40 but my concern with that is it getting on the sensor affecting readings.
- Install all sensors where the sensor itself sets using an ag consultant tube (can be 12 or 18 inches). An ag consultant tube has a slightly smaller diameter that provides a tight fit for the sensor. Use a regular soil probe for the foot above that. For example, for 1’ sensor, I use ag consultant tube. For 2’ sensor, I use regular probe for first foot and ag consultant tube for second foot. For 3’ sensor, I use regular probe for first 2 feet and ag consultant tube for third foot. The reason for this is in clayey soils that are wet, there’s greater resistance to pushing in that sensor, so this is one way I’ve found which is easier for someone like me to push them in. (Jenny’s note: many have installed sensors with a regular soil probe through the years and that’s also fine. Just know that you may see more water run along side of tube before soil makes a tight fit around where sensor is located. I’ve just found less issues with this when I use the process described above).
- NEVER pour water into the hole or make a slurry. Make sure the sensor hits the bottom of the hole as air gaps can make the sensor readings inaccurate. Some people find it better to not remove the entire amount of soil for a specific depth and then push the sensor the rest of the way till the correct depth is obtained. I’m not always strong enough to do that so do what works for you as long as the sensor is at the correct depth and there’s no air gaps.
- Make sure to fill in any gaps around the sensor with soil and make sure there’s no soil cracks around the sensors.
- Make sure to mark each sensor and flag them well.
- Sensor readings should equilibrate with the soil within 48-72 hours but especially within a week.
- If a sensor starts reading really dry, before replacing it, I often remove it and reprime it in the field. This can be done by re-soaking in water for 1 minute or so till it goes back below 10 and then reinstalling in same hole. If it doesn’t go below 10, I replace it. If it reads strange the next week, I also replace it.
- A reminder to use distilled water in the tube and to fill the ceramic top when you’re also filling the main tube. I usually fill the ceramic top and wait for it to soak up a little then fill again.
- Prime the ET gage ensuring no air bubbles are in the second tube with the stopper. I always overfill the ET gage to help with priming and ensuring there’s no air bubbles.
- Excess water can be removed and also air bubbles can be removed by gently pulling down on the glass site gauge tube at the rubber base and releasing extra water from it. Air bubbles can also be released in this process. Place the site gauge tube back in place when you are at a water level between ‘0 and 1’. Then place one red marker ring on that beginning start level.
- I always plan to refill the ET gage when it gets down to ‘9’ on the site tube.
- The green canvas cover should be replaced at least every 2 years and be sure to dust it off and the white membrane below it.
In another column I’ll share how to use the two tools together for irrigation scheduling. All videos and charts with more information can be found at: https://water.unl.edu/category/nawmn. This is a checklist I made awhile back with Daryl Andersen which has more detail and could honestly be updated: http://www.littlebluenrd.org/pdf’s/forms/etgage_sensor_checklist.pdf but may also be helpful.
Tree Damage: Recent windstorms have caused for many downed branches and even some trees. When removing broken branches or dead branches, it’s important to prune correctly for tree health. Correct pruning of larger branches can often involve 3 cuts per limb. The first two cuts are made away from the trunk of the tree to remove most of the weight of the limb. The third cut is near the trunk itself at the bark collar ridge where the tree will eventually seek to heal. I like this Backyard Farmer YouTube video as a good visual of correct pruning: https://youtu.be/9cl0Qxm7npk. Pruning is best done in the dormant season of February and March. It’s best avoided in April and May when trees are putting energy into new leaves and in the fall as fall pruning can result in growth instead of the tree preparing for and going into dormancy. Some great resources with more information on proper pruning are: https://go.unl.edu/v9uf, https://go.unl.edu/gdb9, and this blog post https://jenreesources.com/2014/04/20/proper-tree-pruning.
It’s wonderful receiving the rain we did, seeing how quickly planting progress came along, and how quickly corn is popping out of the ground! Being mid-May, it’s time to get our Evapotranspiration (ET) gages out. A reminder to only use distilled water in the gages, make sure to fill up the ceramic top portion of the gage before inserting the stopper, and gently dust off the ceramic top and replace the white membrane and green canvas cover. We recommend replacing those membranes and covers each year so if you need a new one, please let the Natural Resources Districts (NRDs) or me know and we’ll get you a new one! For those of you recording ET information online, please be sure to do so consistently each week to help your neighbors and crop consultants.
Early after crop emergence is the best time to install watermark sensors. For those of you with watermark sensors, read them to ensure they read 199 kpa (dry). Then “prime” them first by soaking them for 24 hours in water to ensure all the air bubbles have been released. The sensors should have a reading of 10 kpa or below to be considered good. If they read higher than that, either continue soaking them another 24 hours and read them again, or plan that they no longer are reading correctly and replace them with others from the NRDs. Remember after soaking sensors that water moves up into the PVC pipe via capillary action, so be sure to dump the water out of the pipe as well.
When installing the sensors, be sure to install them wet, drain excess water, and look for areas that are not compacted, avoid tractor wheel tracks, and look for even spacing of plants. Carefully install without breaking off any plants (thus easier when plants are small!). It’s also important not to install sensors into extremely wet fields. What we have found is that a thin soil layer can cover the sensor when pushing it into the soil of very wet fields. When that soil layer dries, it can provide a reading of 199 saying the sensor is dry when it truly isn’t. If this happens to you, simply remove the sensor, rewet for one minute and re-install. It should be acclimated to field conditions within 48 hours. If you have any questions regarding the installation process, please let the NRDs or your local Extension Educator know. You can also view videos of the installation process and receive additional information to answer your questions.
While farmers may be tired of irrigating right now, I think all who have irrigation are thankful for it in such a dry year. Honestly, thankfully with our irrigation we have some of the best looking crops in the Corn Belt right now. Even so, with corn that hasn’t been replanted nearing dent or stages of starch fill, you may be wondering how to schedule for your last irrigation.
For those of you in our Nebraska Ag Water Management Network using watermark sensors, the goal is to use them to determine when the soil profile reaches 60% depletion (for silty-clay soils in our area aim for an average of 160 kpa of all your sensors). You may be thinking, “An average of 90kpa was hard enough!” but as Daryl Andersen from the Little Blue Natural Resources District points out, you’re only taking an additional 0.30 inches out of each foot. So if you’re averaging 90kpa on your three sensors, you have depleted 2.34 inches in the top three feet so you still have 0.96 inches left (see the Soil Moisture Depletion Chart). If you add the fourth foot (using a similar number from the third foot), it would bring the water available to the plant up to 1.28”.
At beginning dent corn you need 24 days or 5 inches of water to finish the crop to maturity. If you subtract 1.28 from 5 you will need 3.72” to finish out the crop. Corn at ½ milk line needs 13 days or 2.25” to finish the crop to maturity-so subtracting it from 1.28 would be only 0.97”.
Soybeans at the beginning of seed enlargement (R5) need 6.5”. Soybeans in R6 or full seed which needs 3.5 inches yet for maturity. Subtracting off the 1.28” in the four foot profile would lead to 2.22”. The UNL NebGuide Predicting the Last Irrigation of the Season provides good information on how determine your last irrigation in addition to showing charts on how much water the crop still needs at various growth stages.
Several people I’ve talked to who have been irrigating using watermark sensors aren’t replenishing the second foot, so you may have a few rounds yet to go on corn and beans. For a quick way to know where you’re at, think about irrigating this way as explained by Daryl Andersen at the Little Blue Natural Resources District:
One way to look at this is by the numbers of days left. At 1/4 starch, there are about 19 days before maturity so you can let your sensors average 130kpa on the first week and 150kpa on the next week. If these targets are met during the week, you would put on about 1 inch of water. By going to these numbers, it might give you a higher probability for rain in the next couple of weeks. I’m hoping for many answered prayers that we will see rain in August!
Water use efficiency (or crop water productivity) is important in crop production. The seed Industry has invested scientific efforts and financial resources into developing hybrids and varieties that can better tolerate environmental stresses such as water stress.
Rainfed corn has increased in acres, replacing sorghum year after year. This trend may be partly due to the basis price, herbicide options, and newer corn hybrids bred with root systems to better withstand water stress. In 2009 the question was posed, “Is sorghum still the most crop-water-use-efficient crop, given newer corn hybrids in rainfed fields are providing decent yields and more herbicide options?” To answer the question the Nebraska Grain Sorghum Board funded a project in south-central Nebraska.
On-farm research was conducted for three years in rainfed production fields near Lawrence with the most adapted and high-yielding corn, sorghum, and soybean hybrids and varieties for that area. The research was conducted in no-till fields where the previous crop had been sorghum. A randomized complete block design with three replications was used.
Corn and soybean were planted between May 5 and May 7; sorghum planting ranged from May 19 to May 28. Corn was planted at 20,000 seeds/acre, soybean at 135,000, and sorghum at 65,000. Rainfall in this area varied greatly from 2009 to 2011: 2009 was dry with only 10 inches of rain during the growing season; 2010 had 16 inches, and 2011 had 20.5 inches from May 1 to October 15.
To monitor soil moisture, Watermark sensors were placed at 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-foot depths in each plot and the readings were recorded hourly throughout the growing season via Watermark dataloggers. Data were compiled and analyzed to determine crop water use efficiency (CWUE) values. The CWUE values were determined from the Watermark soil moisture data, actual crop water use (evapotranspiration), and grain yield for each crop.
Results: Table 1 shows actual crop evapotranspiration (ET) in inches, grain yield, and crop water use efficiency for each crop in each year. Corn was the most water use efficient of the three in 2009. Sorghum results in 2009 might have been different if rainfall had occurred to activate the sorghum herbicide as grass pressure was heavy in the sorghum plots that dry year. In 2010-2011, sorghum yielded the most, had good weed control, and had the best crop water use efficiency value.
|Table 1. Crop water use efficiencies in on-farm field trials conducted near Lawrence, Nebraska, 2009-2011.|
Overall in this study, sorghum had a crop water use efficiency of at least 5.5 bu/inch; corn, at least 4.3 bu/inch, and soybean, at least 2.0 bu/inch. These results show sorghum’s continued value as a crop that efficiently uses water. Sorghum produced more grain per unit of water used than corn or soybean, an important benefit in water-limited environments. On a three-year average, sorghum resulted in 1.2 bu/inch and 3.5 bu/inch more grain production per inch of water used than corn and soybean, respectively. This study did not compare sorghum or soybean with new “drought-tolerant” corn hybrids. Graphs, charts, and production information can be found here.
Acknowledgements: Special thanks to John Dolnicek of Lawrence, Nebraska for allowing this research to be conducted on his farm and for all his help and efforts to make it a successful study and to the Nebraska Grain Sorghum Board for funding this study.