Two Cost-Effective Tools to Improve Irrigation Efficiency - UNL CropWatch, March 26, 2012

Two Cost-Effective Tools to Improve Irrigation Efficiency - UNL CropWatch, March 26, 2012

Soil Waternarj sensors

 Watermark sensors are usually installed in the field after the crop has emerged, but before it's gotten too large and remain in the field throughout the season.

 March 26, 2012

Order Now for Recommended Spring Installation

With fuel prices climbing and spring just around the corn, this would be a good time to consider adding economical irrigation tools that can help you better manage your irrigation application timing and rates. Such improvements can save energy and water without sacrificing yield.

Atmometer or ETgage

The first tool to consider is an atmometer or ETgage. It acts as a mini weather station to provide reference evapotranpiration (ET) information for nearby fields. Information is displayed on a site tube mounted in front of a ruler on the instrument. Reading the site tube is like reading a rain gauge in reverse as you watch to see how much the water level drops each week. A grower or crop consultant can use an atmometer to quantitatively gauge how crop water use varies from week to week and season to season with changing weather conditions. This is more accurate than using an average number for a given season or growth stage


Key components of an atmometer installed approximately 40 inches above ground in a pasture.

Atmometers consist of a wet, porous ceramic cup (Bellani plate) mounted on top of a cylindrical water reservoir. The ceramic cup is covered with a green canvas (Gor-Tex) that simulates the canopy of a crop. The reservoir is filled with distilled water that evaporates out of the ceramic cup and is pulled through a suction tube that extends to the bottom of the reservoir. Underneath the fabric, the ceramic cup is covered by a special membrane that keeps rain water from seeping into the ceramic cup. A rigid wire extending from the top keeps birds from perching on top of the gauge.

Atmometers are typically mounted on posts near irrigated fields, for example in an alfalfa field. It can also be located alongside a road if it’s surrounded by low growing crops. The site should represent average field conditions. Do not install near farm buildings, trees, or tall crops that may block the wind. The top of the ceramic cup should be at least 39 inches above ground and at least one foot above the crop canopy. Don’t install an atmometer under the throw of an irrigation system, as evaporated irrigation water will leave minerals on the green cover that can inhibit water flow.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln research conducted by Suat Irmak, Extension Soil and Water Resources Engineer, showed that an atmometer’s ET reference values closely match the values calculated from weather station data. More importantly, the atmometers are located in growers’ fields, making them especially useful for areas without nearby weather stations or for people who do not have ready access to this information. A grower or crop consultant can install an atmometer to help schedule irrigations for any field within a radius of several miles.

Crop water use can be estimated by recording the weekly drop in water level. To determine the actual water use for a crop, multiply the drop in water level by a crop coefficient. Coefficients used for Nebraska are listed in the publication Using Modified Atmometers (ETgage) for Irrigation Management (UNL Extension NebGuide G1579) or on the web at The larger the crop, the larger the crop coefficient. For corn from V16 through dent, the coefficient is 1.1. So, for example, if the ETgage dropped 1.5 inches for the week and the crop was in the V6 stage, the crop coefficient would be 0.35. Actual crop ET would be 1.5 inches multiplied by 0.35 for a total of .525 inches of crop water use for the week. However, if the crop stage was tassel, we would multiply 1.5 inches by 1.1 for a total of 1.65 inches for the week.

An atmometer costs approximately $250 and can be used alone to manage irrigations. Typically in Nebraska we begin the season with a full soil profile. We then use a check book method and subtract ET information provided by the ET and add effective rainfall events. We’ll want to always leave a little room for rainfall, but it can be difficult to accurately estimate the soil water content to decide when to make that first irrigation.

Creating an ET Information Network

If you install an ETgage in your field, we encourage you to share your findings through the Nebraska Agricultural Water Management Demonstration Network (NAWMDN). Participating producers, consultants, NRD personnel, and Extension educators across Nebraska are uploading weekly ETgage information to provide more resources for managing irrigation.. If you'd like to see the data from your area, simply go to the View Weekly ETgage data page and click on your county. You will then see a GoogleTM Map noting the location of ETgage sites and can access more detail for each site.

Watermark Sensor

 Installing a Watermark sensor

 Waco farmer Mark Schlechte installs a Watermark sensor in his corn field in 2011 to monitor soil moisture throughout the season.

Atmometers do a great job of estimating crop water use, but it’s important to also monitor soil water status. To monitor soil moisture we have been using Watermark sensors that are installed at 1-, 2-, 3-, and even 4-foot depths in representative areas of the fields. The sensors are usually placed in the row between plants just after corn or soybeans emerge. These sensors are glued onto PVC pipe so they can be installed, used, removed at the end of the season, and reused next year. Watermark sensors should be installed when conditions permit before the crop gets too large and can be used throughout the growing season to manage irrigations (soil moisture-based irrigation management), using suggested UNL trigger points.

Before heading to the field to install Watermark sensors, you’ll need to do a little preparation. The sensors need to be soaked in water and then allowed to dry out, preferably a couple of times prior to installing them in the field. When installing sensors, be sure they are wet. Also, be sure that no extra water has soaked up into the PVC tube by tipping the sensor and making sure no water sloshes around.

Irrigations events can be initiated when trigger points indicated by the Watermark sensors are reached. Trigger points listed in the online table, Irrigation Trigger Levels by Soil Types, are when 35% of the available soil water in the soil profile has been depleted. Growers will need to vary these triggers depending on system capacity, crop development stage, predicted crop ET, and point of the growing season. We don’t recommend waiting until the traditional 50% depletion because it may take several days to make a full circle application with the center pivot system. Thus, if the irrigation is initiated at the 50% depletion level, by the time the pivot completes the circle, the available soil water in some parts of the field may be significantly less than 50%, causing plant stress. The 35% depletion level is used as a buffer or safety strategy to minimize the risk of crop water stress.

Using Both Tools in Your System

First Irrigation. Watermark sensors and atmometers can be used together quite well for irrigation management. The Watermark sensors can help determine when to initiate the first irrigation, based on the suggested trigger points in the Extension Circular, Watermark Granular Matrix Sensor to Measure Soil Matric Potential for Irrigation Management, (EC 783), for a given soil texture. After the first irrigation, an atmometer can be used to estimate actual crop water use since the last irrigation, using the reference ET and crop coefficient. You can then use the Watermark sensors to monitor your irrigation decisions. It’s important to also use a soil probe to compare the soil water conditions in other areas of your fields where you don’t have soil sensors. We recommend probing soil in three to four other field locations for the first couple of years to be sure you have selected a representative location for you soil sensors.

Last Irrigation. The Watermark sensors also can be used to determine the timing of the last irrigation. Between the first and last irrigation, ETgages can be used alone to make irrigation management decisions, saving you from having to make a weekly trip to the field to read the Watermark sensors. However, recent technological developments may allow you to view your Watermark sensor readings from any device that has Internet access.

Learn More

For more information on how to use ETgages and Watermark sensors for irrigation management, see these UNL resources.

For more information on ordering ETgages and Watermark sensors, please check with your local NRD, as many NRDs across the state offer cost share programs for these tools. You also may contact one of the authors listed below.

Chuck Burr, Aaron Nygren, and Gary Zoubek
Extension Educators