The neutron probe (NP) is used widely to measure changes in soil water storage in research and more recently to aid irrigation scheduling. Its accuracy is rarely questioned and most of the relationships between soil water changes and productivity are based on its use. A field experiment was conducted at Cambridge University Farm in 1999 to address whether the NP could accurately measure changes in soil water content (SWC) under irrigation or substantial rain (>10 mm). The experiment was a replicated split-plot design with four irrigation treatments allocated to the main plots, and surface profile (ridge, flat) and crop (potato cv. Saturna, bare soil) treatments allocated to the subplots. The mean results from four NP access tubes per plot installed to measure soil moisture deficit (SMD) across the row-width were analysed. The NP was inconsistent in measuring known irrigation or rainfall input. In relatively dry soil (SMD>40 mm), the NP generally measured 93 to 110% of 18 mm of irrigation within 4 h of irrigation. The NP recorded much less water applied as irrigation in wetter soil, and often only 40 to 70% of the applied irrigation (18 or 36 mm) was measured. There were occasions when the NP did not measure all the water input even when the SMDs before irrigation were greater than the water subsequently applied. Some of the ‘missing’ water might be attributed to drainage, however, results from an additional experiment using an open-topped tank of soil showed that the NP was unable to detect all the water added to the soil, particularly where the water was largely confined close to the soil surface. Replicated measurements of the change in SMD in the field experiment were precise for a given event and treatment (mean S.E. = 1·3 mm) but were not accurate when compared against the input measured in rain gauges. It was concluded, that the NP could not be used reliably to measure changes in soil water storage after irrigation or substantial rain. For periods when there were minimal inputs of water, there was a closer correlation between changes in SMD measured by the NP and those predicted by a modified Penman–Monteith equation than after substantial inputs of water. However, for predicted changes in SMD of c. 20 mm, there was a range of c. ±5 mm in the changes in SMD measured by the neutron probe.
The value of the NP for monitoring SMDs where there is irrigation, or substantial rain, must be seriously doubted. Consequently, its limitations for scheduling irrigation, testing models or quantifying the effects of treatments on crop water use in potatoes must be appreciated, especially where the areal sampling limitations of single access tubes positioned only in the ridge centre have not been addressed.