Probes push into dryland broadacre cropping

Local Land Services agronomist Tim Bartimote at work in a field near Geurie about two years ago.
Local Land Services agronomist Tim Bartimote at work in a field near Geurie about two years ago.

A SERIES of trials at Gilgrandra, New Mollyan and Forbes is looking to increase data broadacre croppers can draw on when making critical, and at times expensive, decisions about their crops.

Common in irrigated crops, the capacitance soil moisture probes being used in the trials are now pushing into dryland boadacre cropping to help improve outcomes.

Central West Local Land Services agronomist Tim Bartimote is drawing on his experience with capacitance probes in the irrigated cotton industry.

The probes are sunk to about a metre depth and can then have multiple sensors spaced within the probe.

They are solar powered with a night-time battery backup and can be moved by two people within a couple of hours.

Tim Bartimote installs a capacitance probe at a trial site south west of Bogan Gate.

Tim Bartimote installs a capacitance probe at a trial site south west of Bogan Gate.

The sensors can read soil moisture, temperature and identify where the roots of crops are potentially where a crop is drawing moisture and nutrients from.

The probes can send updates every 15 minutes to an hour and can be read via mobile phone or a work station on farm.

Mr Bartimote is confident use of the probes can deliver more data for croppers to help with seasonal decision making, including nitrogen application, crop sequencing and yield estimates.

"We want to show producers how the soil moisture probes work, what information they provide and the benefits of an additional layer of data in the decision-making process," Mr Bartimote said.

"At New Mollyan moisture monitoring in a conventional fallow and a barley cover crop ahead of sorghum will provide a comparison on the effects of cover cropping to soil moisture, final summer crop yield and profitability.

"In-crop probes in barley and wheat at Gilgandra will demonstrate the value of mapping moisture use through growth stages across the season to make crop-nutrition decisions and predict yield.

"The two probes at the Forbes site will compare a winter cereal with a pasture and will show the advantages of understating key growth patterns and allow responses from rainfall and grazing to be tracked to make more informed management decisions through the season," Mr Bartimote said.

He said growers could learn exactly where moisture, nutrients like phosphorous were being drawn from and how crop roots were interacting with the soil and at what levels.

"Once these were educated or subjective guesses, but what is happening underground is made clear with the use of sensors," he said.

"That can help a great deal with the decision-making process, how hard to push the crop, fertiliser decisions and help predict yields."

Mr Bartimote said while more data was not necessarily panacea, it certainly helped to have specific paddock information, rather than relying on the nearest weather station for data.

While probes are becoming cheaper, prices are still subjective, depending on who you buy it from and what you're trying to achieve - and they are also available for hire.

The team hopes to run small field walks to the sites later in the season and will be producing video and photo footage to show interested producers.

The trials are part of the 'Adapt Project', which is supported by LLS through funding from the federal government's National Landcare Program.