Fine sand
Sandy Loam
Sandy clay loam
Soil Texture Triangle

The Feel and Appearance Method

The "feel and appearance method" described in the soil moisture estimation pamphlet from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (also available as a Spanish language version) is one of several irrigation scheduling methods used in Irrigation Water Management (IWM). It is a way of monitoring soil moisture to determine when to irrigate and how much water to apply. Applying too much water cause excessive runoff and/or deep percolation. As a result, valuable water is lost along with nutrients and chemicals, which may leach into the ground water.

The feel and appearance of soil vary with texture and moisture content. Soil moisture conditions can be estimated, with experience, to an accuracy of about 5 percent. Soil moisture is typically sampled in 1-foot increments to the root depth of the crop at three or more sites per field. It is best to vary the number of sample sites and depths according to crop, field size, soil texture, and soil stratification.

For each sample the "feel and appearance method" involves:

  1. Obtaining a soil sample at the selected depth using a probe, auger, or shovel;
  2. Squeezing the soil sample firmly in your hand several times to form an irregularly shaped "ball";
  3. Squeezing the soil sample out of your hand between the thumb and forefinger to form a ribbon;
  4. Observing soil texture, ability to ribbon, firmness and surface roughness of ball, water glistening, loose soil particles, soil/water staining on fingers, and soil color.
    Note: a very weak ball will disintegrate with one bounce of the hand. A weak ball disintegrates with two or three bounces.
  5. Comparing observations with photographs and/or charts to estimate percent water available and the inches depleted below field capacity.


Sample Depth Zone USDA Texture AWC* for Zone Soil Moisture Depletion** % Depletion
6" 0-12" sandy loam 1.4" 1.0" 70
18" 12-24" sandy loam 1.4" 0.8" 55
30" 24-36" loam 2.0" 0.8" 40
42" 36-48" loam 2.0" 0.5" 25
  6.8" 3.1"

* Available Water Capacity (AWC) is the portion of water in a soil that can be readily absorbed by plant roots of most crops.

** Soil Moisture Deficit (SMD) or Depletion is the amount of water required to raise the soil-water content of the crop root zone to field capacity

Result: A 3.1" net irrigation will refill the root zone.