Cellular water

12/06/2011 @ 10:50am

Red Rock Ranch was looking for solutions to the double whammy of high water and labor costs. Prior to 2006, the operation's land, located around Five Points in California's Central Valley, was flood irrigated. “The cost of water in this area had been steadily going up the previous decade,” says ranch manager Ken Enfold. “We pay approximately $100 per acre-foot for water (which is just the cost of the water with no pumping expenses factored in), and that is certain to go up in the future. With that expense, we want to put on the least amount of water as possible but still deliver the water the crop requires when it needs it the most.”

So in 2006, the operation's owner, John Diener, made a major investment in nine center pivots after considering a drip system. Drip systems would have cost about $1,200 to $1,400 per acre. The pivots cost the operation around $500 an acre.

Telematic control investment

That investment included equipping each of the pivots with smart controllers. In their particular case, Red Rock Ranch opted to go with Lindsay Irrigation's FieldNet system, which allows for remote monitoring and controlling of pivots either from an office computer or a cell phone.

“Beyond the fact that this technology alerts us if there is a problem with a pivot – such as it being shut down – another advantage is that we can fully control the machines remotely,” Enfold says. “That is a big, big advantage, particularly when growing such crops as vegetables in a desert environment. Failing to get water on crops in a timely manner can cause huge yield losses.”

Red Rock Ranch's crop mix includes tomatoes, garlic, onions, lettuce, beets, and spinach in addition to corn, wheat, alfalfa, and cotton. Grapes and almonds are irrigated with drip tape.

Labor costs go south

One of the most immediate returns on their pivot investment came in the way of reducing labor costs. “Now we have just one person driving around monitoring pivots for maintenance,” Enfold says. “Before, we had 20 people doing the same work. That represents an incredible labor savings. With access over the computer or cell phone, we can shut pivots down much faster than we could if we had to drive out to the fields. And the remote control also acts as an excellent diagnostic tool if there is a problem with a pivot.”

Part of their investment included the use of wireless soil moisture probes, “which allow us to see how much water we need to apply,” Enfold says. “Thanks to those probes, we are far more accurate in our application of water. And thanks to the pivots, water application is far more uniform.”

Drainage system reduces salinity

Further water savings have been realized by the operation through the use of an Integrated On-Farm Drainage Management (IODM) system. An impermeable layer of clay under Red Rock Ranch's fields prevents irrigation water from filtering deep into the ground. Trapped water forms a perched (shallow) water table. The selenium-rich soils and years of irrigation have resulted in concentrated levels of selenium and salinity in the soil. The IODM system employs subsurface drain tiles to capture saline- and selenium-laden water and reuses the water to irrigate salt-tolerant grasses, canola, and mustard seed. These plants absorb the saline and selenium, thus removing the elements from the perched water table.

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