New plant-stress sensor further aids irrigation efficiency


New technology developed at the university here promises to further enhance growers’ ability to irrigate only when and where the water is needed.

A suite of sensors developed by University of California-Davis researchers delivers real-time plant-stress data to a grower’s computer or smart phone, preventing him or her from having to walk through fields to look for signs of stress, the researchers say.

The device, which is now being marketed by Milpitas, California-based Cermetek Microelectronics under the LeafMon brand name, has been rolled out first for vineyards and almond and walnut orchards with a goal of improving crop quality and yields. Researchers are now testing the device’s effectiveness on other crops.

The technology “is giving growers a convenient way to irrigate crops the right amount in the right place at the right time,” UC-Davis spokeswoman Diane Nelson said in an email.

The new device comes as nearly 90% of tree nut growers in the northern Sacramento Valley have converted to drip irrigation and micro-sprinklers to save water, according to Allan Fulton, a UC Cooperative Extension farm adviser in Red Bluff who specializes in irrigation.

The extension has made irrigation efficiency a key focus in recent years, training farmers in irrigation scheduling, deficit irrigation and how to interpret readings from pressure bombs to determine how much water their trees need.

Even before the four-year drought, UCCE advisers were urging growers to set up irrigation schedules with the use of such testing equipment as pressure bombs, which are sort of like blood pressure tests for trees. UC-Davis’ Fruit and Nut Center launched a website last year to help growers interpret their readings from pressure bombs.

Growers also make use of soil sensors that help them water only when their soil is dry, but those readings may be misleading, UC researchers say. Dry soil doesn’t always indicate that a plant is suffering, just as moist soil doesn’t always mean a plant is getting water at its deepest roots.

The LeafMon device designed by UC-Davis biological and agricultural engineering professor Shrinivasa Upadhyaya and his team attaches to a single, shaded leaf and measures leaf temperature, light, wind speed, relative humidity and air temperature — all of which affect a plant’s water needs, a news release explains.

Luis Sanchez, a senior research scientist for E and J Gallo Winery in Modesto, California, believes the sensor could work well with other high-tech irrigation scheduling methods.

“It could be a very useful tool for verifying our satellite-based irrigation schedules,” Sanchez said. “The plant-stress sensor system could help us fine-tune our irrigation to improve crop quality and yield.”

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