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Posts from the ‘Soils’ Category

Water potential sensors improve peanuts, cotton, and corn irrigation

Ron Sorensen, a researcher at the National Peanut Research Laboratory in Georgia, is working to help small-scale peanut, corn, and cotton farmers in Georgia optimize irrigation.

Water potential sensors help cotton fields in southern U.S.

Cotton field in southern U.S.

Shallow subsurface drip irrigation is a very economical alternative for these farmers. “If you can put in a pivot, most of those are already in,” says Sorensen. What he’s working with are “small, irregularly shaped fields that go around swamps or in trees or backwoods where they might have 10 to 15 acres that used to be an old farmstead.”

Sorensen helps revitalize these old farmsteads by revamping old wells and plowing in drip tape. In many cases, farmers can have water running the same day they start the project.

Subsurface drip offers significant benefits to these farmers. “What I like about drip is that…I can fill up the soil profile, and I know I can fill it up. With the pivot, I’m putting out water today, and I may be coming back two days later and doing it again,” Sorensen says. “And I’m putting all this water on the leaves, creating the incidence for disease… With cotton, you can actually wash the pollen out of the flowers, and you won’t set a boule. There you’re losing yield. Whereas with drip, you can turn it on, you’re never wetting leaves, you’re getting full pollination… I’m an advocate for drip on small irrigated fields.

“Irrigating down here [using diesel-powered irrigation pumps] is upwards of $11 an acre any time the farmer turns it on. So if he can wait a day, he’s saved that irrigation.”

“I love pivots on big fields, but we have to manage the water correctly. Farmers are starting to see that. We can save the farmer money, save him time, save him labor. Those…are all side benefits of irrigating correctly,” says Sorensen.

As farmers begin to see the benefits of efficient irrigation, Sorensen’s challenge is to help them know when to water and how much water to put on.

Sorensen is at the end of his third year gathering data with METER water potential sensors. He buries sensors at 10- and 20-inch depths in three separate plots, then irrigates when the average water potential reaches -40, -60, and -80 kPa respectively.

“We started in corn, because we know it has a shallow root system, and when you don’t irrigate corn, you don’t get any yield.” Initially, they allowed the profile to dry out to -120 kPa, but “we discovered it doesn’t work. We weren’t ever irrigating, and we had really bad yields. -120 was much too dry, and we cut back to -40, -60, and -80.”

The researchers used water potential readings with moisture release curves to determine how much water to add to bring the profile to field capacity.

METER TEROS 21 water potential sensor

They found that allowing the soil to dry to -60 allowed them to save water without impacting yields in corn. Cotton and peanuts are a different—and more complex—story.  “Both cotton and peanut, if you don’t get any rain or water, they just hunker down, and when you do get a rainstorm, they flourish. When the rainfall comes at a funny time, it changes everything,” Sorensen explains.

Take this year, for example. Until the first of June, Sorensen’s plots got very little rain. Then from June to the end of July, he got 24 – 26 inches. “All the differences between our plots are just gone. Irrigated is the same as the non-irrigated because by the time we started to irrigate, it started raining.”

Despite this setback, Sorensen is confident that the data will ultimately help produce a reliable irrigation tool for farmers. His goal is to add a drip irrigation module to Irrigator Pro, a computer program currently used by pivot irrigators.

He is working with several farmers who already use sensors in conjunction with the Irrigator Pro model. “They can use the computer model as a guess to get close, and then they can use a sensor to really get down to the exact day,” he says. And in Georgia, the exact day can matter quite a bit.

“What it comes down to is: Do I need to turn the pump on or not?” he explains. “Irrigating down here [using diesel-powered irrigation pumps] is upwards of $11 an acre any time the farmer turns it on. So if he can wait a day, and if we have one of these gulf storms come through, and the farmer gets 3/4 inch of rain, he’s saved that irrigation.

“And if you can save two, three, maybe four irrigations a year, we’re conserving water, we’re making the farmer more sustainable, and he can take that money and reinvest it into his farm, or into his children, or wherever he wants to put it. And that makes it so we have food on the table, clothes on our backs, cotton, corn, or peanuts, we’ve got food to eat.”

Discover METER water potential sensors

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

Soil Moisture—6 Common Oversights That Might Be Killing Your Accuracy

Your decisions are only as good as your data

If you rely on soil moisture data to make decisions, understand treatment effects, or make predictions, then you need that data to be accurate and reliable. But even one small oversight, such as poor installation, can compromise accuracy by up to +/-10%. How can you ensure your data represent what’s really happening at your site?

Chris Chambers discusses how people unknowingly compromise their soil moisture data.

Best practices you need to know

Over the past 10 years, METER soil moisture expert Chris Chambers has pretty much seen it all. In this 30-minute webinar, he’ll discuss 6 common ways people unknowingly compromise their data and important best practices for higher-quality data that won’t cause you future headaches. Learn:

  • Are you choosing the right type of sensor or measurement for your particular needs?
  • Are you sampling in the right place?
  • Why you must understand your soil type
  • How to choose the right number of sensors to deal with variability
  • At what depths you should install sensors 
  • Common installation mistakes and best practices
  • Soil-specific calibration considerations
  • How cable management can make or break a study
  • Factors impacting soil moisture you should always record as metadata
  • Choosing the right data management platform for your unique application

Watch it now—>

How to interpret soil moisture data

Surprises that leave you stumped

Soil moisture data analysis is often straightforward, but it can leave you scratching your head with more questions than answers. There’s no substitute for a little experience when looking at surprising soil moisture behavior. 

Join Dr. Colin Campbell April 21st, 9am PDT as he looks at problematic and surprising soil moisture data.

Understand what’s happening at your site

METER soil scientist, Dr. Colin Campbell has spent nearly 20 years looking at problematic and surprising soil moisture data. In this 30-minute webinar, he discusses what to expect in different soil, environmental, and site situations and how to interpret that data effectively. Learn about:

  • Telltale sensor behavior in different soil types (coarse vs. fine, clay vs. sand)
  • Possible causes of smaller than expected changes in water content 
  • Factors that may cause unexpected jumps and drops in the data
  • What happens to dielectric sensors when soil freezes and other odd phenomena
  • Surprising situations and how to interpret them
  • Undiagnosed problems that affect plant-available water or water movement
  • Why sensors in the same field or same profile don’t agree
  • Problems you might see in surface installations

Watch it now

Degradation of soil-applied herbicides under limited irrigation

Soil-applied herbicides are important for controlling weeds in many crops because they offer a broadened control spectrum and chemical diversity. But if soil-applied herbicides persist in the soil too long, there is risk for damage to susceptible rotational crops in succeeding years. Since herbicide degradation in the soil is highly dependent on water, imminent needs to reduce agricultural water use in the future could lead to limited herbicide degradation and a greater risk for carryover.

Some crops don’t have a wide variety of post-emergent herbicide options, so growers are dependent on soil-applied herbicides for weed control.

Recently Daniel Adamson and a research team at the University of Wyoming, under the guidance of Dr. Gustavo Sbatella, investigated the effects of soil-applied herbicides under limited irrigation conditions. They wanted to understand how limited irrigation affects the efficacy and carryover of soil-applied herbicides in Wyoming’s irrigated crop rotations. A two-part field study was undertaken by applying four soil-applied herbicides to dry beans and four soil-applied herbicides to corn. 

Soil microbe activity matters

Describing his research site, Adamson says, “Wyoming is not a huge farming state but there’s a pocket of farm ground near the Powell/Cody area with a unique rotation. The main crop is sugar beets, and they also grow dry, edible beans, sunflowers and malt barley. Some of these crops don’t have a wide variety of post-emergent herbicide options, so growers are dependent on soil-applied herbicides for weed control. However, they need to balance weed control with timely dissipation so sensitive rotational crops won’t be injured.

Adamson says that soil-applied herbicides tend to be fairly long-lived in the soil, which is advantageous for weed control. Importantly, the herbicides dissipate through degradation by soil microbes, and soil microbes are highly influenced by how much water is in soil. When the soil is moist and warm, microbes are more active, and they degrade the herbicides faster. Thus, his team hypothesized that if future climate change effects led to limited availability of surface water for irrigation, these herbicides may not degrade as quickly and possibly injure crops planted successionally.

Assessing herbicide damage

During the first year, the research team applied three irrigation treatments to each crop: 100%, 85%, and 70% of crop evapotranspiration. Both crops and soil moisture were monitored using METER data loggers and soil moisture sensors. Adamson recalls, “The sensors were our means of tracking what was happening in the soil in terms of volumetric water content. Some of the areas were chronically dry, so the sensors enabled us to confirm that the treatments were applied correctly and should theoretically affect how the herbicides were performing. The volumetric soil water content of the three irrigation treatments averaged 24%, 18%, and 16% throughout the growing season, and crop yield decreased as irrigation was reduced.” 

Over the course of the second year, the team collected soil samples at regular intervals following herbicide application. They analyzed the samples for herbicide level and used them to perform a greenhouse bioassay to determine crop response to residual herbicide. Also during the second year, crop response was evaluated in the field when sugar beet, sunflower, and dry bean or corn was planted over the original plots and assessed for herbicide damage.

The results of the experiment were surprising.

Hurdles and challenges

Adamson said timing was the major difficulty in terms of applying irrigation treatments. He said, “There were no differences in irrigation timing for the various treatments. The way we irrigated was not representative of a typical deficit irrigation strategy because we were tied to a sprinkler with other projects on it. So we irrigated based on when the full water treatment would normally be irrigated. Other treatments had smaller nozzles so the amount of water was physically reduced.”

Adamson said they also weren’t prepared to track how some of the herbicides would behave in the soil. “Some of the herbicides degrade into metabolites that are phytotoxic in the soil, and it was hard to analyze for all molecules that were plant active. So that was challenging.”

Surprising results

Adamson said the results of the experiment were surprising. He says, “It was a good result for growers because we found there were no differences in the fields, statistically or visually, between how the herbicides carried over in the really dry soil versus the normally irrigated soil. So that was surprising, but from a practical standpoint for farmers, it was important information. They now know if they do have to start applying less water, it isn’t something to be overly concerned about.”

More research is needed

Adamson says more work is needed in this area of research. He adds, “There’s a tremendous amount of information within the weed science community about what herbicides do in the soil and things that influence that. But relatively few studies look at changing irrigation rates in a practical sense. A lot of the current studies are done in rain-fed systems where the amount of rain changes (i.e., a normal year vs. a drought year). In irrigated systems, you might reduce the amount of water, but it’s not a drastic reduction like a rain-fed system might experience. There’s not a huge amount of research looking at how different irrigation rates affect herbicide management, so I do think it would be worth exploring in the future.”

Download the researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture—>

Download the researcher’s complete guide to water potential—>


Combining in situ soil moisture with satellite data for improved irrigation recommendations

Improving irrigation requires smart data gathering to help growers make better choices in the field. Measuring in situ creates high-resolution, temporal data enabling us to see clearly what’s happening over time—but only at a single point. Satellites show data across a large spatial scale but are hampered by revisit frequencies, clouds, and resolution limits.

Often we see information in a silo, looking at one type of data or another. The challenge to researchers is how to connect across these scales and combine the information to make better irrigation decisions. In this webinar, Dr. Colin Campbell explores the future of irrigation and research he’s been doing with collaborators at Brigham Young University. Learn:

  • How researchers are combining in situ, drone, and satellite measurements to extract key information
  • How these data can be connected across scales 

Watch it now

 

Data deep dive: When to doubt your measurements

Dr. Colin Campbell discusses why it’s important to “logic-check” your data when the measurements don’t make sense.

Wasatch Plateau

In the video below, he looks at weather data collected on the Wasatch Plateau at 10,000 feet (3000 meters) in the middle of the state of Utah.

Watch the video

 

Video transcript

My name is Colin Campbell. I’m a research scientist here at METER group. Today we’re going to spend time doing a data deep dive. We’ll be looking at some data coming from my research site on the Wasatch Plateau at 10,000 feet (3000 meters) in the middle of the state of Utah. 

Right now, I’m interested in looking at the weather up on the plateau. And as you see from these graphs, I’m looking at the wind speeds out in the middle of three different meadows that are a part of our experiment. At 10,000 feet right now, things are not that great. This is a picture I collected today. If you look very closely, there’s an ATMOS 41 all-in-one weather station. It includes a rain gauge. And down here is our ZENTRA ZL6 logger. It’s obviously been snowing and blowing pretty hard because we’ve got rime ice on this post going out several centimeters, probably 30 to 40 cm. This is a stick that tells us how deep the snow is up on top. 

One of the things we run into when we analyze data is the credibility of the data and one day someone was really excited as they talked to me and said, “At my research site, the wind speed is over 30 meters per second.” Now, 30 meters per second is an extremely strong wind speed. If it were really blowing that hard there would be issues. For those of you who like English units, that’s over 60 miles an hour. So when you look at this data, you might get confused and think: Wow, the wind speed is really high up there. And from this picture, you also see the wind speed is very high. 

But the instrument that’s making those measurements is the ATMOS 41. It’s a three-season weather station, so you can’t use it in snow. It’s essentially producing an error here at 30 meters per second. So I’ll have to chop out data like this anemometer data at the summit where the weather station is often encrusted with snow and ice. This is because when snow builds up on the sonic anemometer reflection device, sometimes it simply estimates the wrong wind speed. And that’s what you’re seeing here. 

This is why it’s nice to have ZENTRA cloud. It consistently helps me see if there’s a problem with one of my sensors. In this case, it’s an issue with my wind speed sensors. One of the other things I love about ZENTRA Cloud is an update about what’s going on at my site. Clearly, battery use is important because if the batteries run low, I may need to make a site visit to replace them. However, one of the coolest things about the ZL6 data logger is that if the batteries run out, it’s not a problem because even though it stops sending data over the cellular network, it will keep saving data with the batteries it has left. It can keep going for several months. 

I have a mix of data loggers up here, some old EM60G data loggers which have a different voltage range than these four ZL6 data loggers. Three of these ZL6s are located in tree islands. In all of the tree islands, we’ve collected enough snow so the systems are buried and we’re not getting much solar charging. The one at the summit collects the most snow, and since late December, there’s been a slow decline in battery use. It’s down. This is the actual voltage on the batteries. The battery percentage is around 75%. The data loggers in the two other islands are also losing battery but not as much. The snow is just about to the solar charger. There’s some charging during the day and then a decrease at night. 

So I have the data right at my fingertips to figure out if I need to make a site visit. Are these data important enough to make sure the data loggers call in every day? If so, then I can decide whether to send someone in to change batteries or dig the weather stations out of the snow. 

I also have the option to set up target ranges on this graph to alert me whether the battery voltage is below an acceptable level. If I turn these on, it will send me an email if there’s a problem. So these are a couple of things I love about ZENTRA cloud that help me experiment better. I thought I’d share them with you today. If you have questions you want to get in contact me with me, my email is [email protected]. Happy ZENTRA clouding.

Download the researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture—>

Download the researcher’s complete guide to water potential—>

Soil sensors help solve putting green water distribution issues

Distribution of soil water in high-sand-content putting greens is a major concern for golf course superintendents. Gravel is commonly used as a component of a sand-based root zone to increase moisture retention, but due to gravity, the contour and slope of a putting green significantly affect moisture retention. Coarse-textured soils often become too dry in higher elevations and too wet in lower elevations. This hampers performance and increases water and labor inputs. 

The contour of a putting green affects moisture retention


To fix this problem, Thomas Green, a graduate student at Michigan State University, and a team of researchers are assessing the impact of gravel layer particle size and slope on soil water content in a variable-depth, high-sand content root zone.  He says, “Due to lack of published research and the USGA’s wide-ranged specification for gravel selection based on the root zone material, determining the optimal bridging, filtering, permeability, and uniformity factors capable of increasing root zone soil moisture uniformity is critical.”

Validating previous turfgrass experiments

Green and his team set out to validate previous turf experiments done at MSU which showed that increasing the particle size difference between the gravel and root zone (sand) layers, in combination with a variable-depth root zone (shallower at the slope apex, deeper at the slope base) would improve soil moisture uniformity. 

He says, “We wanted to retain this moisture consistently throughout the whole profile over the entire green. Our experiments decreased the root zone depth in relation to our gravel layer. So at the peak, we reduced the root zone, and in the valleys, we increased the root zone to eliminate wet spots where water accumulates.”

Water potential is the key

Green says the goal was to manipulate the “head” (or water potential) in the peaks and valleys. He explains, “We tested particle size differences between a high-sand, root-zone mix and the gravel layer. Past studies show that the greater the difference between the root zone particle size and the gravel particle size, the more water is retained at the interface. Essentially in the valleys, we increased the depth of the sand layer to create (in physics terms) a large head that forced more water to drain. At the top of the green, we did the opposite and made a thin layer of sand so more water was available. Basically, it was all about manipulating the water potential or tension on the water to retain the right level of moisture.”

The diagrams below illustrate the physics of how this works:

Figure 1. Diagram of sand and gravel layers in a putting green

In Figure 1, the gravel provides a textural barrier where pores must be saturated for water to move into the gravel.

Figure 2. Closeup of tall sand layer in the valley

Figure 2 is a closeup of the tall layer. Cohesion of water molecules together and adhesion to soil particles ties water together and exerts downward force or tension on water at the top of the profile. The larger the height from the top of the profile to the saturated surface, the more tension on the water (lower water potential).

Figure 3. Closeup of short sand layer at the peak

Figure 3 is a closeup of the short sand layer. Shorter height above the saturation zone reduces the tension in the top layer of soil (higher water potential). Thus, the high part of the green with the thinnest sand layer will have less tension and more water than the thick layer in the lower part of the green. To visualize what soil tension is like, think of people hanging on people (Figure 4). The more people there are, the more “pull” will be exerted on the top person.

Figure 4. Soil tension is like people hanging on people. The more people, the more pull exerted on the top person.

Eliminating edge effects

Green used METER soil moisture and temperature sensors at three different depths along with METER data loggers to validate that the water was in the right place. He inserted the sensors into an enormous box that mimicked a putting green. “I created a 4-ft x 4-ft module to simulate a sloping green. I had to figure out how large it should be to eliminate edge effects (water preferentially moving toward the container edges). The soil moisture sensor helped me determine just how large this box had to be to get accurate measurements.”

Green says the surface measurements were the most important, “I was interested in that top depth because in a golf setting, that’s where you need to control moisture. In a putting green, turfgrass roots aren’t very deep because the grass is so short.”

USGA has adopted the new method

Green says the results turned out as expected. “We expected that if we increased the gravel particle size difference and reduced sand depth, we would see increased water retention in our root zone profile, and that’s exactly what happened. The great thing is the USGA has now somewhat adopted these new recommendations. More and more golf courses are going to this construction method. It’s good for the industry because they’re conserving water.”

In the future, Green says he’d like to explore some research done by F.W. Taylor in the early 1900s. Taylor thought about using a vertical sand or gravel strip contoured on a slope to form a barrier to water moving downhill instead of plastic or polyethylene. This idea is illustrated beautifully in the classic 1950s era film by Dr. Walter Gardner.

Download the researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture—>

Download the researcher’s complete guide to water potential—>

Founders of Environmental Biophysics: Walter Gardner

Visualizing water flow in soil

This week, in our “Founders” series, we highlight a soil physicist.

Water movement in soil defies intuition

When Dr. Walter Gardner passed away in June (2015), many viewed the film Water Movement in Soils as one of the main accomplishments of a remarkable career. Dr. Gardner and Jack Hsieh made the film in 1959 at Washington State University. The technology they used was impressive—it was years before advanced electronics would make time lapse movies routine—but Dr. Gaylon Campbell finds the ideas behind the experiments even more remarkable.

“Once you’ve seen the film, you can go back to the unsaturated flow theory and see how it would work,” Campbell says, “but the ideas aren’t really obvious. I wish I knew how he thought of doing that.”

At one point in the film, Gardner himself says that the phenomena he illustrates in the film can be seen in nature “if one observes carefully.” It’s possible that some of these careful observations were made in the fields around Washington State University, where farmers often turned the surface layer of soil over using a moldboard plow. This created a layer of surface soil with a layer of straw underneath it—exactly the conditions Gardner describes in the film as leading to erosion, reduced water in the root zone, and damage to the soil in the plow zone.

Though agriculture was the obvious target of the film, for a while it was also a big hit with the US Golf Association. Golf greens are mown short and get a lot of abuse. They need to be watered and fertilized heavily, but how do you keep enough water on the plants between irrigations without leaching nutrients out of the root zone? Water Movement in Soils provides a perfect answer. Gardner consulted for the USGA and used his film to train people who designed and constructed the greens.

Water movement in soil defies intuition

Our intuitions about how water moves in soil are often wrong. More than fifty years after it was made, this classic film still has the power to help people understand what’s really going on.

Watch the video

 

Learn more

Download “The researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”

Download “The researcher’s complete guide to water potential

Best of 2019: Environmental Biophysics

In case you missed them, here are our most popular educational webinars of 2019. Watch any or all of them at your convenience.

Lab vs. In Situ Water Characteristic Curves

Lab-produced soil water retention curves can be paired with information from in situ moisture release curves for deeper insight into real-world variability.

Watch it here—>

Hydrology 101: The Science Behind the SATURO Infiltrometer

Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell teaches the basics of hydraulic conductivity and the science behind the SATURO automated dual head infiltrometer.

Watch it here—>

Publish More. Work Less. Introducing ZENTRA Cloud

METER research scientist Dr. Colin Campbell discusses how ZENTRA Cloud data management software simplifies the research process and why researchers can’t afford to live without it.

Watch it here—>

Soil Moisture 101: Need-to-Know Basics

Soil moisture is more than just knowing the amount of water in soil. Learn basic principles you need to know before deciding how to measure it.

Watch it here—>

Soil Moisture 201: Moisture Release Curves—Revealed

A soil moisture release curve is a powerful tool used to predict plant water uptake, deep drainage, runoff, and more.

Watch it here—>

Soil Moisture 301: Hydraulic Conductivity—Why You Need It. How to Measure it.

If you want to predict how water will move within your soil system, you need to understand hydraulic conductivity because it governs water flow.

Watch it here—>

Soil Moisture 102: Water Content Methods—Demystified

Dr. Colin Campbell compares measurement theory, the pros and cons of each method, and why modern sensing is about more than just the sensor.

Watch it here—>

Soil Moisture 202: Choosing the Right Water Potential Sensor

Electrical conductivity

METER research scientist Leo Rivera discusses how to choose the right field water potential sensor for your application.

Watch it here—>

Water Management: Plant-Water Relations and Atmospheric Demand

Dr. Gaylon Campbell shares his newest insights and explores options for water management beyond soil moisture. Learn the why and how of scheduling irrigation using plant or atmospheric measurements. Understand canopy temperature and its role in detecting water stress in crops. Plus, discover when plant water information is necessary and which measurement(s) to use.

Watch it here—>

How to Improve Irrigation Scheduling Using Soil Moisture

capacitance

Dr. Gaylon Campbell covers the different methods irrigators can use to schedule irrigation and the pros and cons of each.

Watch it here—>

Next up:

Soil Moisture 302: Hydraulic Conductivity—Which Instrument is Right for You?

Leo Rivera, research scientist at METER teaches which situations require saturated or unsaturated hydraulic conductivity and the pros and cons of common methods.

Watch it here—>

Predictable Yields using Remote and Field Monitoring

New data sources offer tools for growers to optimize production in the field. But the task of implementing them is often difficult. Learn how data from soil and space can work together to make the job of irrigation scheduling easier.

Watch it here—>

Learn more

Download “The researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”

Download “The researcher’s complete guide to water potential

The effects of environmental change on carbon cycling across the semi-arid west

Meet Christopher Beltz: G.A. Harris Fellowship winner

Increased nitrogen availability has the potential to alter many ecosystem functions—and is doing so already. This is due to the widespread response of net primary productivity (biomass) and soil respiration to increased nitrogen inputs into the biosphere.

Increases in nitrogen inputs are responsible for the acidification of soils, streams, and lakes and can affect forest and grassland productivity. Former G.A. Harris Fellowship winner, Christopher Beltz, a PhD student at Yale University, and his research team are examining two major drivers of carbon cycling: water and nitrogen. They want to understand the degree of limitation by both of these factors in the semi-arid ecosystems of the western United States and if that limitation changes by specific function.

Inspired by a mitigation pilot project

Beltz decided to study the effects of increased nitrogen on biomass after learning about the initiation of a major energy development in a sagebrush steppe system which caused declines in a local mule deer herd. He says, “One hypothesis was that the development significantly reduced available winter range forage and also impacted the use of it as the animals moved more quickly through the noisy environment. They wanted to see if the widespread application of fertilizers would potentially offset the loss of biomass and increase the forage quality. In the end, it was clear that the effect of nitrogen fertilization alone would have minimal to no effect. However we also noticed some variability in the results and that this variability seemed to be related to precipitation.”

Beltz thought that if he could control the water in a system in addition to nitrogen, the results might be more consistent. Thus, Beltz and his research team broadcast nitrogen over the soil at three semi-arid grassland and shrubland/sagebrush sites in Colorado and Wyoming. He says, “The three sites essentially have a similar species list, annual precipitation, and annual temperature. However, temperature increases as you go south, and there are some differences in seasonality. The shrublands in the far north are the driest in the late summer which is typical of shrublands, where you see a large amount of precipitation occurring in the spring with a deficit in the summer. Larger taproots are beneficial in this system because they can access deeper water reservoirs.”

Measuring soil moisture improves understanding

The team used METER weather stations, soil moisture sensors, and data loggers to monitor site conditions (i.e., precipitation, air temperature, soil moisture, and soil temperature) with high temporal resolution. Beltz explains, “We monitored soil moisture to understand whether our treatments were having any effect. We needed to know if the treatments actually altered the soil water conditions. With soil sensors in the ground, we could monitor that. We also monitored precipitation at the site level because of the fine scale spatial heterogeneity of precipitation in these systems. We weren’t confident we could obtain this with interpolation or modeling; we wanted site-specific values.”

Beltz uses this and other data to understand the interactive effects of nitrogen and water and also changes in water and nitrogen concentrations. He says, “We do a classic full-factorial manipulation outdoors. We perform the exact same manipulations with the same timing at each site. We measure a whole suite of variables that range from ecosystem structure to ecosystem function. This includes soil respiration, plant community, soil microbial communities (fungal and bacterial) using next-generation sequencing. We look at pools of soil carbon, and we do some fractionation so we can get at more labile and recalcitrant carbon compounds.”

Beltz says that monitoring soil moisture at multiple depths is important. “Our soil samples come from the same depths as the sensors so we can differentiate depth when we look at changes in bacterial or fungal composition. We then try to tie that to temperature and moisture. In 2018, we added an additional set of soil moisture sensors in our water treatment so we could start to quantify the effect in the soil depth that those water treatments were having. This helped explain a lot of what we were seeing.”

Nitrogen or water: which is the driver?

Beltz says the analyses are ongoing, but what they’ve learned so far is that an application of water equivalent to 12 millimeters precipitation penetrates to 10 centimeters of depth, and the effect of that application lasts three to seven days at all of their sites. He says, “Last year, we had an unseasonably large amount of precipitation at our northerly site. So for most of the season, the water treatments and the controls were identical in terms of water availability. That was a very helpful context for us because we started to see things that did not match the expected patterns.”

Looking at the big picture, he adds, “What’s come out of this is not what anybody expected. One major finding, at least in the initial analyses at two of our sites, is that it’s really the combined treatment of increased nitrogen and water that has the effect. This is not necessarily surprising in some ways, however it is the widespread lack of response of any other treatment combination that is extremely interesting.”

What it all means

Beltz sums up the implications of his research like this: “We know water availability and precipitation will shift globally due to climate change, as well as nitrogen deposition and availability. Our research is trying to tease apart the effects of two factors, at least within the western United States, that we know are likely to cause changes to the structure and function of dryland ecosystems. As we start to look at carbon balance or shifts in function or species competition of plant communities, we are finding out that it’s the combined effect of increased nitrogen and water that will cause a more major change as opposed to just one or the other. It’s important that we integrate that combination into models that often do not account for both of these factors.”

Beltz says in the future he’s interested in continuing his work in the carbon/nitrogen cycle world, and he wants to look at integrating nitrogen and water into carbon balance modeling efforts.

You can read more about the first study mentioned, regarding nitrogen fertilization in the sagebrush steppe, which was published in PloS ONE: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0206563

Find out about his research here: christopherbeltz.com or via Twitter @BeltzEcology

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