Smart irrigation: Unleashing the power of precision for profitable farming

Industry expert Mike Mills details the benefits and challenges of adopting smart irrigation practices, managing soil nutrients and boosting net farm income.
The Irrigation Association, Fairfax, Virginia, is highlighting the value of smart irrigation through Smart Irrigation Month this July. The initiative was created to promote the social, economic and environmental benefits of efficient irrigation technologies, products and services in landscape, turf and agricultural irrigation. This year’s theme, “What’s the value of smart irrigation?” allows the IA to tell the irrigation industry’s story about how smart irrigation products, technologies and practices are having a positive and beneficial impact on our lives and communities. Smart Irrigation Month is sponsored by HydroPoint.

Irrigation infrastructure, from pumping systems to distribution networks, plays a critical role in agriculture. Outdated systems can result in high costs and inefficient water resource management for growers. Upgrading these systems can provide rapid returns on investment and significant savings for growers, according to Mike Mills, manager of dealer development & training/director of sustainability solutions at Reinke Manufacturing Company. 

Upgrading irrigation infrastructure to smart systems and cost savings

Center pivots are a typical focal point for upgrades due to the exposure they endure, including factors such as suspended particulates and normal wear and tear over the lifetime of use, says Mills. In some instances, upgrades on equipment only a few years old can make big improvements. Some older equipment, such as pumping plants, however, can operate for decades before wear becomes evident.  

When it comes to deciding where to start, Mills says the right solution varies from grower to grower. 

 “There’s a lot of wear that happens with our equipment, with irrigation equipment, even beyond center pivots,” says Mills. “In some cases, there is equipment that is only a few years old that upgrading components such as sprinkler packages, pressure regulators and things like that can provide a pretty quick boost in water use efficiency as well as the efficacy of the application.” 

Mills emphasizes the potential of “precision irrigation,” which involves upgrading various parts of a system, like control equipment and GPS position monitoring, to achieve peak water use efficiency.  

Mills adds that investing in personal development is a worthwhile endeavor.

“The biggest tool that growers can upgrade that will give them the best bang for their buck is themselves,” says Mills. “Taking the time for knowledge and understanding that irrigating is more than just putting water down. There’s a lot that goes on above the ground. But there’s a whole lot more that goes on below the ground. Educating themselves on managing the soil correctly using equipment such as modern soil moisture monitoring. Those are the kind of upgrades that can be very easily done, in many cases, very inexpensively and provide a pretty good return on investment.” 

Mills advises growers eager to learn more about precision irrigation and how it can lead to fewer inputs while still maximizing yields to start with resources like the Irrigation Association and local research universities that specialize in regional irrigation research. Such resources offer insights into soil-water-plant relationships and optimal water management methods, says Mills. 

A fear of technology and a lack of understanding of the necessity to upgrade can still hinder adoption, says Mills. To combat these barriers, he advises taking a hands-on approach, letting the grower test the technology. 

“The best way for a grower to overcome that fear is to actually put some hands on that equipment,” says Mills. “A lot of this is being custom installed. It’s not like we can come out and do a demo per se, but a lot of the dealers, no matter what brand they carry, have ways that a grower can access and test drive some of the equipment and find a way to apply it.” 

He also points out the importance of keeping the initial learning phase simple and focused on key features can prevent overwhelming new users. 

“On the dealer’s side, it’s important not to oversell the equipment. As salespeople, we get very excited about all the really cool things that our stuff will do, but sometimes I think we can overwhelm a new user with features and benefits. If there are three things that a grower wants to do or that would benefit that grower most, then let’s show them how to do those three things and leave out the other hundred that maybe aren’t applicable to that grower.” 

Efficient irrigation also can lead to less water pumping, says Mills, which has several tertiary benefits including less wear on application equipment, healthier crops, and lower costs and increased income as a result. 

“On both sides, we find that we pump less water, we have less wear and tear on our application equipment, and by managing that soil correctly, we’re able to sell more of our crop, which is higher quality, and infinitely end up with lower costs and more income at the same time,” says Mills. 

Mills says, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for every grower. Customization is key, and a detailed evaluation of each component of a grower’s system is crucial. Most importantly, a behavioral change in water management practices can bring the most significant benefits, Mills reiterates. 

“As manufacturers, we build and sell any number of equipment, piece of equipment that can do phenomenal things for the grower,” says Mills. “But if the grower installs it and never changes their behavior, then the savings are minimal at best. So that means we need to rethink how often we water, how much we water, what the threshold is for watering and what our measurement metric is for determining when water is necessary. All of those things are the behavioral change that sometimes flies in the face of generations of assumed knowledge that’s been passed down.” 

In addition to the direct cost savings that can come in the form of a smaller power bill or other reduced inputs, Mills adds that irrigation is the ultimate insurance policy for farmers. The power of irrigation ensures the survival of crops and directly translates to income for farmers.  

This, according to Mills, could create a ripple effect of benefits, including reduced costs in crop insurance, increased yield and increased quality, leading to overall net farm income. The ability to control water application also allows farmers to effectively manage soil nutrients, reaching maximum efficacy in their operations. 

How easy is it for farmers to adopt these modern, smart irrigation systems? According to Mills, while it’s a significant investment, there are numerous resources available to farmers. These range from funding programs offered by agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources Conservation Service, to commercial lending institutions that specialize in agricultural finance. 

“The biggest variable that the grower has absolutely zero control over is Mother Nature,” says Mills. “And she is fickle. So if we can find a way to overcome some of the challenges of Mother Nature’s unpredictability, then we can then begin to have some more predictability in our ability to produce. So when irrigation is installed in areas where it wasn’t before, now that grower can guarantee that they can get the water at the time that they need and in the volume that they need so that they can optimize their productivity.” 

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