Soil Moisture Network and Tools – MT and WY collaborative

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2017: $49,995.00
Projected End Date: 04/30/2021
Grant Recipient: Montana State University
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Lee Schmelzer
Montana State University


Not commodity specific


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, grazing management, rangeland/pasture management
  • Crop Production: drought tolerance
  • Education and Training: decision support system, demonstration, extension, on-farm/ranch research, 3. Utilize the aggregated soil moisture data in conjunction with climate information to create and update decision-making tools. 6. Solicit feedback by end users through the development process of these tools and guides.
  • Natural Resources/Environment: 1. Expand the footprint of soil moisture monitoring network in Montana and create the MT/WY Soil Moisture Network.

    Proposal abstract:

     Weather phenomena such as hurricanes can be sudden, violent, and cause massive damage. In contracts, the less dramatic drought is
    longer lasting and causes even more damage and similar costs over a much longer period (Motha 2001). Montana was in a dramatic
    drought from 1997 to 2006, and in some areas of Montana there were 12 years of declining precipitation totals (WRCC, 2007). The effects
    of this drought have had an enormous impact on Montana, its farmers and ranchers, forests, and overall economy.
    For decades meteorological data have been collected for various sites in the western United States. Although these data provide important
    information on a very broad scale, users are constrained by its resolution in developing specific local applications. Not only have the
    historical data been coarse in collection resolution, they have also missed key pieces of information on soil moisture and temperature that
    have explicit ties to forage, crop, and range production. Without these measurements, it is difficult to understand the current, historical, or
    future effects of drought conditions. All of this points to the need for more precise weather information, with parameters expanded to
    include the important variables missed in the past. The National Drought Council also recognizes these key missing pieces of information
    and has recommended the use of soil moisture and soil temperature data to determine drought.
    The goals of the Western SARE program are to promote good stewardship of the nation’s natural resources and to strengthen the family
    farm system of agriculture. This project meets these goals by providing and connecting agriculture producers with critical information and
    tools that are currently lacking by improving our measurement and our understanding of soil moisture. This collaborative project will
    extend the spatial footprint of current soil moisture monitoring and broaden the utilization of tools developed with the collected soil
    moisture data. The Montana / Wyoming Soil Moisture Network will develop new monitoring sites; revitalize, collect, and aggregate data
    from a set of the existing sites that are most easily repaired; and use this information to develop, update, refine tools for agriculture
    producers, land managers, and research investigators all based on standards set by the newly formed National Soil Moisture Network.
    Drought monitoring is critical to Montana”s resource managers but is hampered by a lack of data on crucial drought indicators: soil
    moisture and temperature. Crop and range yield losses and the associated economic impacts of drought, are strongly linked to the amount
    of soil moisture in the profile available for plant uptake. Cumulative rainfall data alone are poor predictors of drought impacts, because
    costly short-term soil moisture deficits can occur in years of average or above average rainfall. Soil moisture measurements are combined
    with data about the site’s soil to produce a measurement of the amount of moisture available to plants, known as plant available water
    (PAW), a much better measurement of drought stress the plants are under.
    Through our Extension appointments we will create local connections to pair select high-tech monitoring soil moisture monitoring sites
    with a broader network of low-tech monitoring sites. The group of professionals involved in this project are Extension Faculty at Montana
    State University (MSUE) and University of Wyoming Extension. The high-tech sites will be instrumented with Decagon
    ( Campbell Scientific ( )
    soil moisture sensors. We will investigate the use of drones to determine soil moisture to be funded in future cycles. The low tech sites will
    be monitored by participating producers using the Paul Brown Probe
    ( and in some instances low cost Watermark Soil Moisture Sensors
    ( ). The Paul Brown Probe is currently commonly
    used by agriculture producers and consultants in our region to estimate PAW in crop land and improved pasture sites. Its use in
    Rangelands has been limited and will be explored to a limited extent with this grant and will likely be the subject of a subsequent project.
    This project will improve its utility through updating the supporting models that allow producers to use the probe in decision making.
    Additionally, important to our improved understanding of the spatial variability of soil moisture, this effort will follow the model of
    community monitoring established by the successful Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS)
    ( Network participants, partners, and community members will be trained on how to collect soil moisture using
    the Paul Brown Probe and how to enter their results into an online database.
    Another purpose of this project is to develop web-based tools that are currently unavailable to assist range managers and agency people in
    making critical decisions relative to disaster declarations and drought conditions. Additionally, the web-based tool will provide information
    important to planning concerning range production and management decisions based on local weather and soil moisture information
    (Whilhite 2000). The web-based tools will provide users the ability to regularly access this information.
    Finally, all of the objectives in this proposal came from ideas proposed by and discussions held with producer members of local drought
    advisory boards and Conservation Districts throughout Montana. Through factsheets, publications, field trainings and demonstrations, and
    a project specific website hosted at MSUE, the collected data and subsequent tools will be shared with users across central Montana and
    Wyoming. The improved understanding of soil moisture availability and the improvement to associated data interpretive tools will improve
    decision making. This will positively impact the economic and environmental return for direct users while providing societal benefits
    through improved resource utilization.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. Expand the footprint of soil moisture monitoring network in Montana and create the MT/WY Soil Moisture Network. (Year 1 and 2).
    a. Revitalize, assimilate, and catalog existing soil moisture data from south central Montana.
    b. Establish additional soil moisture monitoring sites with participating producers.
    c. Assimilate soil moisture data from other sensor networks to achieve regional coverage (e.g. Wyoming, RAWS, Scans).
    d. Incorporate Montana Climate Office and Montana Institute on Ecosystems sites into the larger network.
    e. Standardize soil moisture sensors by measuring essential soil properties governing plant water availability.
    f. Develop methods for quality control and maintenance to ensure long-term survivability and expansion to other areas of the Northern
    2. After the first year of collecting and aggregating data, implement Educational and Outreach.
    a. Develop and deliver factsheets and visual outreach pieces. (End of year 1 continuing to years 2,3 and beyond).
    b. Include a discussion of the project and results in Extension workshops. (End of year 1 continuing to years 2,3 and beyond).
    3. Utilize the aggregated soil moisture data in conjunction with climate information to create and update decision-making tools. (year 1 and
    a. Develop an early drought warning tool that integrates sensor outputs and the site-specific soil properties to calculate plant available
    water. (Fig. 1).
    b. Develop a tool to predict forage production and stocking rates early in the grazing season on rangelands. The current year’s rainfall for
    April + May + June, compared as a percentage of the same months from long term climate data correlates to expected range production for
    the year. (Kruse et al. 2007; Morgan et al. 2006).
    c. Develop tools to predict grain yield based on current soil moisture and NWS long-term precipitation probabilities (Brown and Carlson
    4. Collect soil moisture data to determine if a larger more in-depth study is warranted in a future funding cycle to assess the potential of
    using soil thermal inertia to map soil moisture from drones (Garcia 2015) (Year 1).
    5. Increase stakeholder’s literacy and the size and strength of the network of users using simple soil moisture tools (e.g. Paul Brown Probe).
    (year 2 and 3).
    a. Following a community network model (e.g. CoCoRaHS), refine and improve the spatial scale of fine scale soil moisture availability
    monitoring. Incorporate data through the community network (e.g. Paul Brown users). This project will concentrate on uses in rain fed crop
    land and improved pasture. An initial exploration of the efficacy and feasibility of using the Paul Brown probes in rangeland will be
    b. Improve producers access to a low-cost soil moisture monitoring tools.
    6. Solicit feedback by end users through the development process of these tools and guides. (All years).

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.