15 Jul 2009

More Bushels for Less Water with Technology

A guest post by Brandon Hunnicutt*

It is that time of year again in Nebraska, irrigating time. The time of year that can truly make or break a crop. In a state where there is as much rain variability from the east side to west side of the state, as west coast to the east coast, water is very important. We sit on the Ogallala aquifer which serves as a great supply of groundwater for many years to come. But we want to manage it to the best of our abilities.

We have utilized different resources to help in this. We have changed many acres from flood/gravity irrigation to center pivot irrigation. We have many pivots that run only on electricity which we can have the power company interrupt during peak electrical usage time. Over the years, we have used gypsum blocks to sense when we need to irrigate. We have utilized consulting services to help determine when to start and stop irrigating. Now we are striving to go more sensor-based to determine water usage and water need of the plant.

We are using three different methods for irrigation this year. One is using Watermark sensors, which measure the amount of water in the soil. We are in our third year of using this.

The second is the AquaSpy. This one measures more points at a given time and sends the info right to my computer. Looks like something we can utilize for a long time to come.

The third piece of our puzzle is an ET gage. This helps us determine the amount of evapotranspiration for almost all our fields.

The final piece is a chart that gives an estimate of what the crop is using for water at a certain growth stage. By combining all of these resources we can get a very accurate reading of what our crop is using and when we should begin and end irrigating.

Bottom Line: The more these tools advance, the less emotion there will be in irrigating. Hopefully one day we will be able to let the crop and the soil and projected weather tell the pivot exactly when to run and when not to run. That is at least what I dream about as I am driving the 4-wheeler to check the next Watermark sensor in a field.
* A corn, popcorn, and soybean farmer in South Central Nebraska.


  1. Brandon,

    Great post. In order to best manage your water requirements, technology in the field used for monitoring and control is invaluable as a tool. I'd like to add a couple of comments if that's OK?

    As you have found out by now is - there are no shortcuts and there is a steep learning curve associated with using equipment in the field. As much as a vendor says that their solution is 'plug and play' and works flawlessly out of the box - you soon find out that there is a little more knowledge required of you - the end user.

    What knowledge, you ask? First, you need to have a good grasp on electronics to support your deployed equipment. If your AG business makes the commitment to invest in technology, they will also need to have the internal resources to handle the problems with technology. Tech support from a vendor over a cell phone is limited at best. The tech support guy on the phone cannot see that the equipment is miss-wired or you have a bad connection somewhere, etc.

    Another thing you learn over time using technology is that it takes time to understand exactly what the data says. You see things in the data that do not act as expected. Was this due to your expectations (understanding)? Was it due to improper usage or operation of the sensors? Or was it caused due to a physical problem in the field? Funny thing, as you get better at interpreting the data - the more problems you see in your operation.

    Looking at raw data from a sensor array means little to the casual observer. Graphing the data correctly makes gives the true 'picture', literally speaking.

    Bottom Line: The point I want to make is there is no 'Free Lunch' when you deploy technology in the field. You need the special skill sets to support it.

    Did I mention you gave a great post?


  2. Delbert,
    I couldn't agree more with your sentiments. The technology and data from it is only has good as the time I take to understand it and make sure my equipment is calibrated as well as it can be.

    The whole technology wave in ag over the past 5-10 years has been amazing to watch. Many guys want plug and play. It is why autosteer on tractors has become the hot item even though it is the most expensive thing to invest in. One doesn't have to understand it. They just need to know how it operates. When one gets to using nitrogen sensors, yield monitors/mapping, prescription planting/spraying/fertilizing it takes more time and an understanding of the knowledge.

    We need more young people coming back to ag and getting involved in the technology side. When the average age is 55+ in farming, that isn't the generation that is going to spend a lot of time learning and interpreting data and technology.

    Thanks for the comments.


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