With drought years starting to outnumber the years of plentiful rainfall in the lower Southeast, irrigation has become more of a necessity than a luxury, prompting growers to seek more efficient ways of determining when to irrigate and how much to apply, such as using soil moisture sensors.

Researchers at the Stripling Irrigation Park in Camilla, Ga., are exploring all facets of irrigation, including the use of soil moisture sensors and the radio telemetry required to transmit data back to farmers, says Calvin Perry, superintendant of the park.

“Irrigation has grown significantly in Georgia in recent years,” says Perry. “We now have more than 13,000 center pivots in the state, with more than 1,000,000 acres irrigated. The ratio of groundwater to surface water irrigation sources is about 2:1.”

The concentration of center pivots is in southwest Georgia, he adds, with more than half of the center pivots in the state in the Lower Flint River Basin.

The primary questions asked in irrigation are, when do I irrigate, and how much do I apply? says Perry. “We feel like if irrigation is timed and scheduled better, it can be optimized. Potentially, we may be able to save irrigations towards the end of the season if soil moisture levels are where they need to be, and maybe we can save that cost of application.”

There are many different ways of scheduling irrigation, he says.

“First, you can do it the old-fashioned way by getting out into the field, kicking the soil, or looking at the leaves on the plants. Or, you can predict crop water use. You can run irrigation scheduling tools that make irrigation decisions based on soil moisture measurements.