Cotton Incorporated and the USDA have combined to study a high tech, real time system of monitoring soil moisture that will provide much more accurate production information for official variety testing programs around the country — and it could provide valuable data for growers further down the road.

USDA Researcher Phil Bauer in South Carolina says the concept for cotton researchers is to put a system of soil moisture sensors, like those used by California-based PureSense Solutions, in variety tests to develop an index.

For every trial there will be an index number that characterizes the soil water conditions that occurred during that trial.

“In a droughty year, for example, we can determine which variety did the best, and which others didn’t perform so well under drought stress,” Bauer says. “Right now, a grower can look at the mean yield and say, it’s a dry year and the variety may not do so well under more normal conditions. With the index, he can determine how a variety performs across a wide range of weather variables.”

Using the PureSense system, researchers get soil moisture data every 20 to 30 minutes.

“By looking at the data at the end of the season during specific growth stages, we will know during squaring the variety did this, and when the plant flowered, the variety did this,” Bauer says. “It gives us nearly real-time information on how plant water uptake in the soil is progressing through the growing season.”

The USDA and Cotton Incorporated researchers hope to establish an index rating for every Official Variety Testing program at each Land Grant university in every state. Using these index numbers, growers can more accurately select varieties for top production, based on their production practices, soil type, etc.

As seed companies push to provide new and improved varieties to growers on a more timely basis, having day-to-day data on which to base release of one variety, in a particular part of the country, versus another variety could be a major breakthrough in seed technology.