by Janet Aird
Valley Bender bends up to 160 degrees in either or both directions and can bend in both forward and reverse operation. Photo from Valley Irrigation website, www.valleyirrigation.com.
"Probably the two most important innovations in irrigation that have happened in our time are drip and center pivot, and there have been lots of changes to those," says Bob von Bernuth, the education director of the Irrigation Association. "Especially interesting are the innovations in technology."
Three separate entities contribute to the innovations, he says. The federal government funds the research, which produces some very good results; private companies bring the new technology to the forefront; and universities bridge the gap. Part of the Irrigation Association's role is to serve as a liaison among these three groups and to promote efficient irrigation technologies, products and services.
Most of these innovations can be applied to pivot, linear and drip irrigation systems. Pivot irrigation is most economically efficient on fields between 130 and 160 acres, but in general it can be used on fields as small as 20 acres. Valley Irrigation (www.valleyirrigation.com
) machines can irrigate fields as small as 5 acres. Drip irrigation can be applied to fields of any size, but is more economically efficient on smaller fields and high-value crops.
Growers can use smartphones and iPads to remotely manage and control their center pivots with BaseStation Mobile from Valley Irrigation. Photo courtesy of Valley Irrigation.
Recent innovations in technology allow farmers to access the information they need from a variety of sources in order to program their irrigation systems to apply water exactly where and when it's needed. This precision irrigation saves time and money (labor and fuel costs), increases yields, and reduces water and chemical waste.
These innovations include computer programs that allow them to access telemetry data from their pivot, linear or drip irrigation equipment or their pumps, so they can monitor the status of irrigation at any time. They also allow farmers, wherever they are, to control their machines by a wired or wireless connection or by cellphone, von Bernuth adds.
Lindsay Corp. (www.lindsay.com
) has developed apps that run directly on iPhones, iPads and Android devices. Reece Andrews, new technology product manager for the company, says, "Growers were telling us they needed to monitor and control their entire operation, and they needed to be mobile."
With FieldNET 3, a plug-and-play system that was introduced in 2012, users have the ability to monitor and control equipment through their cellphones or computers. They can also customize the alerts from the field. FieldNET works on non-Lindsay pivot, linear and pump systems.
Devices that run FieldNET 3 show a dashboard that provides a map of a farmer's entire irrigation operation--even across multiple farms. The dashboard also shows maps of individual pivots and linears as well as pumps, weather stations, pond level monitors and other sensors.
FieldNET's newest feature is Quick Tray. When users click or tap an icon on the dashboard, a small control tray slides up from the bottom of the screen without obscuring the map. Users can see the map and remotely control their pivots, laterals and pumps without having to jump back and forth between screens.
A pivot shown on an iPhone. The blue outline of the circle shows that the pivot is irrigating, and the blue fill shows the portion of the field that has been watered. The rest of the ground has not. Photo courtesy of Reece Andrews, Lindsay Corp.
BaseStation and TrackNET, remote communication devices from Valley Irrigation, allow farmers to monitor their irrigation equipment; control every center pivot, linear machine and pump based on soil moisture sensors; and receive alerts from the field. These products are compatible with Valley and non-Valley equipment.
The remote management system, BaseStation2-SM, is the hub. "Farmers keep a BaseStation computer at home," explains Cole Fredrick, product/project manager at Valley. "The computer can communicate with all the machines. Farmers can have total control from their home, just as if they were standing in their field in front of their control panel. With BaseStation, growers also can incorporate cellphones and tablets to control machines, as well as get alerts from the field in real time through text, email and phone calls."
For growers who don't need the maximum amount of control, Valley TrackNET is available. TrackNET products can do everything from turning machines on and off to programming application rates to monitoring chemigation to displaying historical information and weather reports.
Farmers can use GPS to map their fields and input information about soil type, terrain and slope. They can import other data they need from a variety of sources and use GIS (geographic information system) to store, retrieve, map and analyze the data. These include data about the current weather and soil moisture conditions, as well as the previous year's yield.
"In virtually every state there is a weather network, usually run by a university or a private company," von Bernuth says. Farmers can monitor the amount of solar radiation, temperature, wind speed and relative humidity, either online or through a weather station linked to their irrigation equipment. The machines can be programmed to download the data.
FieldNET 3 gives farmers access to their local weather station and to a "virtual weather station," the Weather Underground website (www.wunderground.com
), Andrews says.
This shows a list of the grower's equipment and its current status; tapping on a thumbnail gets the user into the Control Dash page. Photo courtesy of Reece Andrews, Lindsay Corp.
Soil moisture sensors provide data on the amount of water in the soil profile of the fields. "By using BaseStation, farmers can wirelessly upload soil moisture data to their home computer," Fredrick says.
Yield monitor data show the results of the harvest. "When farmers are harvesting the crop, the harvesting equipment can have a yield monitor interface with GIS," von Bernuth says. They can use information gathered by their yield monitor, which shows the flow rate of the irrigation machine, where the machine was, and what the yield was, all in specific areas of the field, to improve the following year's yields.
FieldNET 3 allows growers to upload irrigation plans wirelessly to pivot or linear machines. Instead of the grower or the installer having to fill out spreadsheets for water usage on the machines, FieldNET 3 does the calculations. In addition, users can set up their pump stations to best match the demand from the pivots. For example, Andrews says, if there are seven pivots and a single pump station, the water pressure can be set higher for a pivot that has to irrigate up a slope.
With the introduction of Valley Variable Rate Irrigation (VRI), growers have more tools for precision irrigation. "It's the next step in precision agriculture," Fredrick says. "Different soil types and topography changes don't utilize the same amount of water. With Valley VRI, farmers can apply different application depths to the varying characteristics of the field. This allows growers to place water where it is needed."
This can be done in two ways. With Valley VRI Speed Control, farmers can apply water uniformly along the length of the pivots and vary the pivot speed in up to 180 sectors around the field. With VRI Zone Control, they can apply water nonuniformly along the length of the pivot by dividing the pivots into management zones to irrigate more than 5,000 individual zones. If there's a pond, they can shut the pivot off as it goes overhead.
Lindsay's Precision Variable Rate Irrigation system applies exactly the right amount of water to each foot or meter of the field, Andrews says. This precision allows farmers to customize an irrigation application to their specific topography, soil type and crop. In addition, if there's an obstacle, such as a tree or shelterbelt, the center pivot system can be preprogrammed to avoid it.
The system dashboard showing the pivot icons, which give farmers insight into where each pivot is in the field and how much it has watered to that point. The solid color inside the circle that matches the color of the outline shows how much of the field has been irrigated. Also visible is the Quick Tray, which allows growers to stay on the operational screen to control their irrigation system. Photo courtesy of Reece Andrews, Lindsay Corp.
There are also new products to allow irrigation in traditionally unreachable areas.
With the new Valley DropSpan, operators can drop the spans upon reaching an obstacle, which allows the center pivot to continue irrigating in previously nonirrigated areas. According to the company website, one person can easily reattach the spans without tools in less than 15 minutes. With the Valley Bender option, the pivot will bend around an obstacle.
Adding a corner system can bring 20 percent or more acres into production, says von Bernuth.
In addition to center pivots, both manufacturers have linear machines, which are manufactured for square and rectangular fields.
Lindsay has developed a new controller for linear irrigation machines. VISION uses GPS and allows farmers to program and automatically control their machines. VISION's EZ Water Wizard can vary the water rates automatically, so the lateral never has to complete a dry run, and no area is over- or underwatered. Farmers just push a few buttons and the plan is ready, Andrews says.
Monitoring, controlling and reporting
"With weather and other events affecting crops, there are reasons to know what's going on with the irrigation machines," von Bernuth says.
Growers with FieldNET 3 can add sensors to their existing pump systems to remotely monitor and record water and energy usage, as well as tank or pond levels. In addition, they can remotely control the pumps' pressure, flow, power and water level.
Growers can use TrackNET to monitor and manage their center pivots, linears and Valley auxiliary equipment from mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops. Photo courtesy of Valley Irrigation.
Another innovation on FieldNET 3 displays how much of a field has been irrigated in real time. Instead of showing a full circle when the irrigation is on, it shows two different colors, one background and one that fills the circle as the field is irrigated. Farmers can create reports for any sensor, including water usage, power usage and water levels.
Farmers with BaseStation and TrackNET can monitor chemigation, view historical information and generate reports. They can also receive alert messages via cellphone, text message or email if there's a status change in the field.
Von Bernuth notes that GIS data is also being used experimentally--for example, to look at crops for leaf temperature, which is a good indication of the crops' water condition.
"You can't do a classical controlled experiment to determine the efficiency of these innovations," he says, "but eventually we'll get much more information."
The author is a freelance writer based in Altadena, Calif.