Thursday 8 October 2020

Soil Moisture Terms

In the last article we focused on soil moisture and how it is stored in the soil; adhesion, cohesion and capillarity. But how does this relate to the terms: saturation, field capacity and permanent wilting point?

When soil moisture is stored in the soil it is possible to measure both the amount (content V%) and the tension. The soil tension forms the basis of the following soil moisture parameters: saturation, field capacity and permanent wilting point.


A soil is saturated when all pores (micro and macro) are filled with water and no air remains in the soil. At saturation there is free water in the soil profile. Gravity will cause water to drain from macro pores and saturation is therefore a temporary state.

Figure 1: Example of a soil reaching saturation point and the subsequent drainage period. 
This is how it appears on AquaCheck soil moisture plots. 

Field Capacity

When a soil is at field capacity, water is held by adhesion to soil particles and capillarity in micro pores. Field capacity is reached when rapid drainage decreases (Figure 1).

On your Vantage NZ soil moisture plots the field capacity is determined for each sensor depth, then summed to determine the l field capacity for the active root zone. This allows for soil texture changes throughout the profile and provides you with a field capacity unique to the sensor site.

Permanent Wilting Point

Evapotranspiration and drainage (to a much lesser extent) will cause the soil to dry below field capacity. During this process water is removed from all but the smallest micro pores. The permanent wilting point (PWP) varies depending on plant conditions, plant type and soil texture (Figure 2). Nevertheless, the soil water potential at which permanent wilting occurs is considered to be 1500 cba.

Figure 2: Illustration of saturation, field capacity and permanent wilting point for three different soil types. 

Available Water 

Available water (AW) is the amount of water held in the soil between field capacity and wilting point for a defined depth of soil and is expressed as V% or millimetres (mm). 


Readily Available Water

Not all the available water is equally (readily) available to plants. Water becomes more difficult for plants to extract the closer the water potential comes to permanent wilting point. This is because the reminding water is bound to the soil at increased tension.

Plants need to take up enough water to satisfy their transpirational demand and sustain optimum growth rates. For every kilogram of dry matter (DM) produced, a plant must transpire between 200 – 500 litres of water.[1] For plants to obtain this quantity of water from the soil, water needs to be readily available. Water is said to be readily available when plant growth is not restricted by water availability. Stress point is the point at which plants can no longer extract water at potential rates. On a soil moisture plot this will be demonstrated by a change in water use, i.e. a change in slope of the soil moisture trace (Figure 3).

Figure 3: A change in slope indicates a change in water use. This is how it appears on AquaCheck soil moisture plots. 

As water below the stress point is not readily available and not sufficient to meet potential daily plant demands, yield is lost. Water between the stress point and permanent wilting point is available to plants, but growth is adversely affected.

The key soil moisture parameters described above are essential in irrigation management. At Vantage NZ we strive to clearly determine and label these on your soil moisture plots (Figure 4) so you can make good irrigation management decisions. 

Figure 4: AquaCheck soil moisture plots clear labelling of key soil moisture parameters. 

[1] McLaren, R.G. and Cameron, K. C. (2000). ‘Soil Science’, Sustainable production and environmental protection. Second edition, Oxford University Press. Page 99.