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ISU upgrading its weather stations at research farms
Iowa Correspondent

AMES, Iowa — Iowa State University is replacing current weather monitoring equipment with upgraded weather stations at several of its research and demonstration farms, to better help farmers check soil moisture levels around the state.

“The updated stations provide information on the soil moisture resource and the actual crop water consumption,” said Elwynn Taylor, ISU extension meteorologist and professor of agricultural meteorology.

With drought conditions continuing across Iowa, Taylor said the new stations offer a risk management tool for crop producers, giving farmers the ability “to know the yield limits being placed on crop yield by water stress as the season progresses.”

The original monitoring equipment, which is more than 30 years old, was the world’s first non-military network of automatic reporting weather stations that were networked, as the new ones will be, allowing their readings to be monitored on ISU’s Mesonet weather website at http://mesonet.agron.ia

Under the upgraded network, moisture sensors will be placed 1, 2 and 4 feet deep in the soil next to the station, where readings will be “taken every 15 minutes and sent by cellular phone text messages to the network,” Taylor said.

“These weather stations have the ability to monitor soil moisture levels,” said Aaron Saeugling, field agronomist at the Cass County extension office and ISU’s Armstrong Research and Demonstration Farm in Lewis.

“Iowa has different moisture regimes going from east to west, (where) the eastern portion of the state receives more moisture than the western portion of the state. This information is useful to farmers and researchers to determine soil moisture stress on growing crops during the growing season.”

In addition, the weather stations also measure rainfall, air and soil temperature, humidity, sunlight, wind speed and direction, with a solar collector powering the units.

Yields and fighting pests

“Weather is one of the biggest factors that determines our crop yields every year, and also has a big effect on our pests,” said Jim Fawcett, extension field agronomist in Iowa City. “By having accurate weather data, we can better understand why we get certain research results on the research farms and better understand how to manage crops – and how to anticipate and manage pest problems in the area.”

Since pests and crops develop at different rates, depending on air and soil temperatures, Fawcett said having accurate measurements is important. “The new feature of these weather stations is their ability to also measure available soil moisture, which is especially important in these dry years,” he added.

From a research standpoint, Virgil Schmitt, extension field agronomist in Muscatine, said having the capability to correlate this more precise weather data with local subsequent yields will help improve the plant growth models, which, in turn, will further improve farmers’ ability to predict yields.

“In a broader sense, I suspect that the markets will also watch the data and be able to better predict grain supplies and, therefore, do a better job of buying and selling grain,” he said.

“Obviously, the stations won’t help anyone control the weather. But with more precise local data, farmers will be better able to predict what their yields will be and, therefore, do a better job of marketing their grain if they are net sellers of grain, or do a better job of purchasing grain if they are net buyers of grain.”

In short, Schmitt said the new stations “will help them better financially manage their yield risk by more precisely predicting what their yields will likely be as the growing season progresses.”
The first of the new units was placed next to the previous model at the Northwest Research and Demonstration Farm near Sutherland. Another seven will be installed on research farms as weather permits. Moreover, two farmers have paid for a weather station to be placed on their farms and a cooperative has ordered three stations.

“The goal is, with cooperators,” Taylor said, to have one in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. At a cost of about $12,000 each for the equipment and installation, Campbell Scientific of Logan, Utah, which produced the original units, will also be manufacturing the new stations.

“Twelve thousand dollars sounds like a lot of money,” Taylor said. “But these days, when you consider the cost of farm equipment, that’s not out of anybody’s reach – especially when you realize the payoff on it if you use it.

“People have to be trained to use it, so they know what it means for their yield and what it means for their soil. The payoff will be just as great for any piece of farm equipment.”