High-tech irrigation systems give online control

Bill Bradshaw / freditor@postregister.com
Harold Jones checks the app on his smartphone to demonstrate how he can remotely control the water delivered to his barley crop on his farm south of Ririe. He said the system allows him to monitor and adjust his irrigation, making it more efficient so he uses less water and gets a higher yield.

Harold Jones manages the irrigation of his 100 acres of barley in Ririe while working at his day job at Broulim’s in Rigby.

Jones can do that because of his computer-controlled pivot irrigation system.

“I’d been doing flood irrigation previously, so this uses about half as much water,” Jones said. “I expect higher yields because the water will be specifically targeted where it’s needed and the fertilizer won’t be washed away in the irrigation process.”

Saving labor and time also are important since Jones has another job.

“I can manage the irrigation from my phone while I’m at work,” he said. “I’d been looking at the pivot systems for about five or six years and finally decided to do it. So far, it’s working out great and it’s easy to use. I’m not a computer guy, but I can do this because it’s extremely easy to run.”

Jones wouldn’t say how much the system cost him.

“I will say that people should run the numbers to see how much time and labor costs the systems will save, as well as how much more they’d make on better yields,” he said. “Then look at the costs and see how long it will take for the system to pay for itself. That’s what I did.”

Irrigation equipment manufacturers embrace every new technology to help eastern Idaho producers make the most of the irrigation water they receive.

“Center pivot irrigation and the constant technological upgrades have been the biggest new things in irrigation,” said Ben Egbert, manager of Valley Equipment and Irrigation of Blackfoot. “The big push is the center-pivot, variable-rate irrigation so farmers can apply the water exactly where and when it is needed.”

That can be done by using computer programs based on the layout of each field, as well as soil type, specific crop and real-time information on how much water each area is getting at any given moment.

“Soil monitors can be buried to transmit water amounts, usually with sensors at three different depths, usually ranging from 6 to 18 inches,” Egbert said. “The information gathered from that is sent to a computer and Web-based site where it can be accessed online from a variety of devices.”

The monitors are able to inform producers whether too much water is being used when it goes below where the plants roots can access it.

Global positioning systems are used to write prescriptions for how much water is needed at each point at every pivot location.

“Another important technology is being able to determine exactly how much water each plant needs at particular stages of development,” said Tom Palmertree, director of marketing for Reinke Irrigation Equipment in Nebraska. “Equipment to monitor exact amounts of water in the soil at every given moment allows farmers ways to improve crop production and save water and money.”

Although based in Nebraska, there are local Reinke distributors across eastern Idaho.

Reinke’s ONTRAC system allows irrigators to use almost any Web-connected device to command and monitor pivots from almost any distance. Producers can handle starts and stops while monitoring pressure, temperature, voltage and weather conditions.

That saves time, vehicle wear and tear, labor costs and fuel that used be spent to physically inspect pivots or measure ground saturation. For areas with specific lower utility rate hours, producers can take advantage of those lower rates without ever leaving home or sending someone to make the changes at the pivot, Palmertree said.

The system allows farmers to track, record and group application data for increased water efficiency

ONTRAC allows easy interfacing and management through any Internet-enabled device by logging into a secure website and instantly being at the controls of the producer’s own system, Palmertree said. State of the art mechanization can be intimidating to producers, so irrigation equipment companies strive to make the transition into higher technology as smooth as possible.

“The systems are pretty simple to operate once they are set up,” Egbert said. “If we install it, we are available to help the producers learn to use it.”

Cost is a huge factor. Every irrigation equipment need is unique, he said, so producers should consult with a dealer for estimates.

“It’s slowly coming along,” Egbert said. “The equipment is fairly expensive and there’s not a lot of money out there. But variable-rate irrigation is gaining a strong foothold. It’s not going to be overnight, but the changes are coming.”