In their journey to make Toro Co. the golf course guru of water conservation, company officials spent years and millions developing a new soil assessment service that can help groundskeepers correct wet and dry spots of turf and slash the watering bill by a third.

The system, which has been tested at Target Field for three years, is expected to be an important tool for large golf courses and sports complexes that can use up to 200,000 gallons of water a day to keep the greens green.

PrecisionSense debuted in February at the Golf Industry Show in San Diego. It has since made the rounds of U.S. trade shows and in early November, it won the Tekne Award for agricultural innovation from the Minnesota High Tech Association. It's now being tested by customers in California, England, and Australia. PrecisionSense will appear at the 2014 Golf Industry Show in Orlando.

At first, PrecisionSense looks like an odd cart being dragged behind a golf cart or lawn mower.

But once turned on, the GPS-plotted machine digs "probes" into the dirt every few feet. It quickly measures and records moisture levels, salt content, and compaction level of every dirt sample taken.

The information is immediately downloaded onto a customer's computer and generates a map detailing the soil composition of every section of the golf course. Groundskeepers can use the data to change sprinklers, place moisture sensors in the right spots, flush excess salt from affected turf or do other things that ultimately save water and money.

The product has received positive feedback, but Toro is still preparing for a slow rollout in the United States. It is targeting golf and sports fields and will eventually pitch the product to the agricultural marketplace, said Dana Lonn, managing director of Toro's Center for Advanced Turf Technology.

Toro, a $2 billion manufacturer best known for making lawn mowers, snowblowers, and sprinkler systems for professional athletic fields and homeowners, hopes PrecisionSense will usher it into a new line of business: service.

The idea isn't necessarily to sell the machine, but to sell its soil mapping service, which can cost $10,000 to $20,000 for large golf courses, Lonn explained. "We do see it as a logical way of expanding, particularly on the professional [grounds care] side … It's very important that you not only have a good product but that people view you as the water [conservation] leaders and innovators."

The key caretaker of Target Field thinks Toro is onto something.

"When I first saw it in 2010, it was just a prototype, so it was a little raw. I took their word [that it would work]. But now I think they came out with a pretty good product," said Larry DiVito, Target Field head groundskeeper. "This system showed us some areas in the new back of the infield where we were putting too much water. … And then out in the deep outfield, and the bullpen along the warning track, there were some areas that were drier than expected and wilting."

The Twins changed some sprinkler heads, altered water loads and continued hand watering the grass nearest the bases to avoid "a mucky mess," DiVito said. Toro's data helped. "With a new field, it was an education tool for us," he said. So much so, he's inviting Toro back to remap Target Field again. Now, after several years of concerts, baseball, seeding, fertilizing and resodding, it's time to see what changes the field needs, he said.

In Maplewood, Keller Golf Course Superintendent Paul Diegnau said PrecisionSense revealed that the course's old sprinkler system wasn't uniformly watering, a key problem, considering the golf course uses an average of 18 million gallons of water a year.

"The system detects problems before you can even see them with your naked eye," said Diegnau, who first beta-tested the product for Toro five years ago.

He hitched PrecisionSense behind a mower, mowed the entire course and parked the machines back in the maintenance shed.

PrecisionSense instantly and wirelessly downloaded its soil data into the Keller computer system. Seconds later, Diegnau had a detailed map showing each overly wet, overly dry or perfectly moisturized spot of the golf course.

"The maps are color coded and graded. One of the maps showed an area in our 18 fairway that was getting really dry. And sure enough, when we went out there, we found a sprinkler head wasn't working," Diegnau said. "It's a pretty nice system."

It worked so well that today, Keller Golf Course is replacing its entire sprinkler system. The cost: $1.3 million. The brand? Toro.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725