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Have You Taken Your Plant’s Temperature Lately? / May 10, 2001 / News from the USDA Agricultural Research Service

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Have You Taken Your Plant’s Temperature Lately?

By Don Comis
May 10, 2001

Is your plant on the phone? Better take the call and save your lawn.

Cotton plants in Oklahoma and peanut plants in Texas are “calling” farmers and telling them they need water, sending their vital signs over a phone line to the World Wide Web at:

http://www.lbk.ars.usda.gov/biotic

Short pencil-size infrared thermometers mounted on posts take the plants’ temperature and record how long they’ve been too warm. These prototype devices can save water and energy by giving plants water to cool them off and reduce their “stress time.” They are being tested on other crops--corn, millet, sorghum, soybean, and sunflower--as well as in other states: California and Mississippi. The units being tested in Oklahoma and Texas relay their information in a midnight cell phone call to the web. The farmer, homeowner, turf operator or orchard grower can then check the web to decide when to irrigate. Any of the devices can be put on “automatic” to trigger irrigations.

The patented device is available for commercial licensing. And as it moves several generations away from its prototype, it is becoming easier to use, wireless, sturdier, more compact and less expensive. The day is coming when a homeowner could place a cigarette-pack-size unit on a decorative light pole and use it to run the lawn sprinkler.

James R. Mahan, an Agricultural Research Service plant physiologist, and colleagues developed BIOTIC (Biologically Identified Optimal Temperature Interactive Console) and have refined it over the past 13 years. Mahan is based in Lubbock, Texas.

The scientists built the device to take advantage of a basic discovery they made about plants: Plants grow best only within a narrow temperature range, which varies by species. Future versions should allow users to choose the lawn or other plant species they are watering from a digital menu display.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Scientific contact: James R. Mahan, ARS Plant Stress and Germplasm Development Research Unit, Lubbock, Texas; phone (806) 749-5560, fax (806) 723-5272, jmahan@lbk.ars.usda.gov.

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