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Telemetry aids irrigation

Better irrigation management could provide a big boost to yields on fields with center-pivot irrigation, says a University of Missouri Extension irrigation specialist.

Center-pivot irrigation accounts for 40% of all irrigated acreage in Missouri, says Joe Henggeler of the MU Extension Commercial Agriculture Program. There are about 4,000 pivots in the state.

“Yields on center pivots could be increased 10% to 15% with better irrigation management, specifically if irrigation scheduling were employed,” Henggeler says. “One scheduling method is the use of soil-moisture sensing devices. However, most Missouri farmers are not using SMS.”

Henggeler believes that more Missouri irrigators would use SMS technology if the data could be automatically collected and made available to them at a reasonable price. Remote accessing of SMS data is known as telemetric soil moisture sensing.

Based on a 10% adoption rate and a 10% yield increase, Henggeler calculates that TSMS could benefit Missouri irrigators $2.5 million in gross profits.

The topic was discussed in depth at the 2009 Bootheel Irrigation Conference, held Dec. 9 in Portageville.

Key Points

• Center-pivot is popular irrigation delivery method in Missouri.

• Irrigation planning plus sensing devices can boost crop yields.

• MU ag engineer program aids farmers in soil-moisture sensing.


Henggeler proposes that MU Extension’s agricultural engineering program and the Commercial Agriculture Program’s Agricultural Electronic Bulletin Board team provide standardized technical specifications for TSMS equipment in center-pivot fields, and make the data available to online subscribers.

Farmers who have fast Internet connections manage more than 40% of the irrigated acres in southeast Missouri, Henggeler says. Farmers without Internet access manage only 10% of the irrigated acres.

Irrigators in Missouri who use irrigation scheduling out-yield their counterparts who do not schedule, Henggeler notes. Averaging all scheduling methods — Arkansas scheduler, Woodruff charts, soil moisture sensors — yield increases are: 13.2 bushels per acre, corn; 91.5 pounds per acre, cotton; and 6.9 bushels per acre, soybeans.

“The actual impact will be readily measurable, so the results can be used by the university to document impact of the program,” he says.

Correct irrigation timing is especially important where shallow topsoil is perched above an impermeable clay or hard layer. “This is the case in much of the irrigated area in central and southwest Missouri,” he adds. “The reason these soils are problematic in irrigated culture is that even a little bit of overirrigation will lead to soil water logging, affecting final yield.”

New network

The Commercial Agricultural team includes irrigation professionals and experts in communication hardware from AgEBB, which already uses radio telemetry to run part of a statewide automatic weather network.

“Although the economic investment, when evaluated as an annual per-acre cost, is very small compared to the potential benefits, there probably are ‘glass ceilings’ on costs that would deter farmers from getting involved,” Henggeler says. “Costs would need to be below $10 per acre, but they could be as low as $3 or $4 per acre.”

The easiest way to lower the price tag would be to share hardware costs by tying in more pivots and increasing the communication distance of radios used, he says. More powerful radios cover greater distances, but also cost more. Optimizing costs to the farmer involves balancing equipment costs against the number of pivots in a locale.

Several equipment companies are interested in the Missouri program, Henggeler says. For more information, call Henggeler at 573-379-5431.

Proctor is an information specialist for MU Commercial Agriculture Program.

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WATER WORKS: Joe Henggeler discusses irrigation scheduling at MU Bradford Farm near Columbia.

This article published in the January, 2010 edition of MISSOURI RURALIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.