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Let orange line be your guide

Regular stops at his pivots and subsurface drip system remain a routine for Don Blaschko of Gibbon, but his 2010 irrigation decisions were made watching a graph and the orange line on his laptop computer screen.

As part of Fontanelle Hybrid’s Aqua View program, Blaschko has joined the expanding world of irrigation scheduling programs that use soil sensors to send moisture data to a home computer or smart phone. More and more, irrigation companies, seed firms and other ag businesses are aligning in partnerships to develop wireless irrigation management networks like this one.

At a glance

Aqua View project seeks to provide irrigators with more efficient water use.

It involves using soil moisture probes to schedule irrigation.

Data from the field is sent via satellite to the home computer.


In 2010, Blaschko installed three John Deere water capacitance probes — one each in a full pivot circle, a half circle and a 55-acre subsurface drip field — that relayed soil moisture status to his home computer.

Savings of $500 to $700

“I made only four total irrigations on each field, applying 3.60 inches per acre total from the pivots and 2.30 inches on the SDI field,” he says. “I probably would have gone another four pivot rotations based on how I irrigated before. For every rotation eliminated, I saved $500 to $700 in pumping costs.”

Additionally, Blaschko says yields this summer were as good — or better — on the three Aqua View-managed fields as they were on other irrigated fields.

Trusting computer scheduling programs based on soil moisture sensors takes some getting used to, but Blaschko says he now has confidence in these evolving tools.

A neighbor, Dan Muhlbach, had a soil moisture probe in four pivot circles in his first-ever year of using any irrigation scheduling program and ended the season with just three total rotations. “We had plenty of subsoil moisture and good early-season rains, so we did not irrigate until early August,” he says. “You watch neighbors who make one or two circles before you do, and it’s hard, but we have to change our thinking and not rely so much on tradition.”

Fontanelle developed Aqua View in 2009 and this summer had 465 probes installed, half in Nebraska and the remainder in Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming and Texas, says Nick Lammers, lead for the seed company’s irrigation program.

“Our average participant saved two to three pivot rotations this year,” adds Lammers, who coordinates Aqua View for Fontanelle.

How it works

John Deere got into the irrigation and moisture monitoring business two years ago and markets the 3-foot-long probe and radio transmitter used in the Aqua View program.

The probe, which is installed in what Lammers calls a field’s representative soil type, measures soil moisture at five depths — 4, 8, 12, 20 and 36 inches. A solar-powered satellite radio unit links that information to a satellite that transmits it to a website farmers like Blaschko and Muhlbach can access at any time, from home or on the road. Soil readings are taken every 30 minutes, and the numbers are sent to the website every two hours.

When users access the data for their fields, two graphs show up. One is a blue line representing 95% of field soil moisture capacity. The other is the orange line, or “when to irrigate line,” that shows when soil moisture declines to 70% to 75% of the blue line. That’s the trigger line to begin applying water.

Fontanelle contracts with and trains crop consultants and agronomists, who it calls “certified water consultants,” to install the probes for users and then make weekly visits to them.

Both Blaschko and Muhlbach visited with their crop consultants before making irrigation decisions.

Aqua View users who order 50 bags or more of Fontanelle seed obtain use of a probe free of charge for one year.

Lammers says farmers who obtain wireless delivery of soil moisture data, rather than having to go to the field to check moisture sensors, have quicker access to that information, allowing for more timely decisions.

Decide to irrigate at your kitchen table

The drip- and pivot-irrigated fields could both be seen outside Don Blaschko’s kitchen window last summer.

Five people sat at the table, determining when next to irrigate that corn — not by heading outside, but instead by zeroing in on their laptop screens. Each screen held a graph with horizontal lines. One at the top showed nearly full soil moisture capacity, and an orange “trigger” line showed the point at which to begin irrigating. The green line showed the actual field soil moisture level. When this green line dropped to the trigger line, it was time to irrigate. Since the green line hadn’t reached the trigger, they all decided to hold off on irrigating.

Welcome to the new frontier in irrigation management: wireless soil moisture data sent from field to computer or smart phone.

Compare this, if you would, to the “good-ole, long days” of shovels, lathe boxes, siphon tubes and gated pipe. And to the days of irrigating continuously, or when the neighbors did so, or by the less refined hand-feel soil method.

Advances continue at a fast pace in remote irrigation monitoring and control, and more Nebraska farmers are coming aboard.


12101446a.tif
READING THE SOIL: Don Blaschko (left) and Dan Muhlbach relied on a soil moisture probe to schedule irrigations in 2010. Between them is a solar panel and radio transmitter that sends soil moisture data via satellite to a home computer or smart phone.

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NOT TIME YET: The blue line represents a full soil profile, while the orange line is the “trigger” line. Actual soil moisture levels are indicated by the green line.

12101446c.tif
TABLETOP IRRIGATION: Reviewing the irrigation program are (from left) Nick Lammers, Aqua View program coordinator; Dean Krull, University of Nebraska; Jeremy Jelinek, Fontanelle; and farmers Dan Muhlbach and Don Blaschko.

This article published in the December, 2010 edition of NEBRASKA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.