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Advanced Irrigation Technology Optimizes Allocated Water

While many Midwest farmers tile their ground to remove excess water, farmers in places like Nebraska are trying to figure out ways to keep every drop.

Working the land for nearly three decades, Frank Lussetto, of Broadwater, Nebraska, knows only too well the challenges of ensuring his crops receive enough water to make it to harvest.

“I need anywhere from 20 to 24 inches of water to grow a crop,” he says. “In a typical year, rainfall averages about 13 inches in my area. In the last couple of years, I’ve gotten much less than that.”

To offset the lack of rain, Lussetto invested in irrigation technology nearly a decade ago and draws his water from the Ogallala Aquifer. Yet, as communities expand and demand more from the dwindling water supply, states are limiting how much water irrigators can use in one season.

Last year Lussetto’s allocation was 14 inches, and there is speculation that amount will be cut back in the not-so-distant future.

Like many in ag, he depends on irrigation to sustain thirsty crops in dry times. What that means is being as efficient as he can with every drop of water, which includes rotating crops every four years and adjusting his water-management practices.

Fine-tuned tech
Working closely with Justin Childears, precision farming services director at 21st Century Equipment in Ogallala, Nebraska, Lussetto decided to incorporate more advanced technology that would allow him to precisely apply and measure water usage on approximately 3,000 irrigated acres.

“I implemented variable-rate technology because several of my fields have up to 12 different soil types. In order to get more efficient, I needed to put the right amount of water on each ground type,” Lussetto explains. “Hopefully, I can save on the heavier soil and move the water to the lighter soil where the water-holding capacity isn’t very good.”

Rather than convert all of his pivots at once, he chose to tackle one field and treat it like a research project. The 70-acre field was split into five zones based on electrical conductivity data.

“I didn’t want to implement something on 25 pivots and have it be wrong,” notes Lussetto. “I spent the extra money on one field so I could learn and know exactly how much water was actually needed on my ground types and how it reacted to the different timings and amounts.”

During the first year, 21st Century Equipment tracked the gallons and kilowatts that the 70 acres used.

“We did some rough figuring. Even though we had some rain that year, we felt we saved enough water to run the little town of Broadwater (with a population of around 130) for almost a year,” he says. “We were cutting some of my zones down to 50%. If I’m normally pumping 500 gallons a minute and saving 250 gallons a minute, the savings add up quickly.”

“In order to manage water more robustly, understanding what is going on in the soils at all times is what is important,” says Childears. “Frank needs to know when he should irrigate and when he shouldn’t, and he should be able to change the volumes of irrigation.”

Having that information reported in real time throughout the growing season and, in some instances, in the off season allows Lussetto to do a much better job of watering the plant only when necessary. Initially, he had a moisture probe in each zone to understand how far he could cut down on water yet still maintain the profile.

“The preface behind Field Connect moisture probes is to analyze the soil at various depths and to understand what the soil moisture conditions are,” explains Childears. “The probes report that information to the Internet in near-real time. We have five different sensors along a 1-meter probe that allows us to analyze soil moisture at five different depths in the soil profile.”

There are two lines on the moisture probes: one where the ground is full of moisture and the other where it needs to be filled (also called the refill point).

“Our goal is to keep it right above the refill point,” notes Lussetto.

Because the information is in real time, Childears is able to interface with Lussetto more readily.

“We’re able to make sure we’re communicating with him things that we’re able to see from the probes that he may or may not see,” says Childears. “We’re also able to take action on things in a quicker time frame to allow him to execute management decisions that will positively impact his crops.”

Monitoring remotely
As farmers travel longer distances to plant crops, having the ability to monitor pivots remotely is a bonus that many are realizing is a priceless feature.

Companies like Valley Irrigation have seen a lot of interest over the last five years in remote monitoring of center pivot and linear irrigation equipment.

“What growers are finding out is they want to invest in this type of technology to make their lives easier,” notes Childears. “They don’t want to be running around checking their pivots at all hours.”

“I had a part-time man who checked all of the pivots twice a day and some of them are 35 miles apart,” explains Lussetto. “Remote monitoring saves a lot of time if I can remotely see if they’re operating correctly. No matter where I am, I know exactly what the pivots are doing. It allowed me to eliminate that part-time position.”

From a tablet or smartphone, Lussetto monitors his irrigation equipment with AgSense, which is color-blind.

“I do not have all one brand of irrigation equipment, and AgSense gives me the ability to monitor the different pivots on one Web page,” says Lussetto.

Future plans

As he looks to the future, being sustainable for generations to come means continually fine-tuning.

“If we’re going to have sustainable ag in these dry parts of the country, we’re going to figure out how to get 100% efficient with the water,” notes Lussetto. “Technology helps me work toward that goal. I can be spot on. I can regulate things. I can turn things on and off from my phone.”

He firmly believes it will take many voices in agriculture to sustain the dwindling water supply.

“I think the solution to managing the water out here is to have everybody understand that we all have to work toward the same solution,” emphasizes Lussetto.

He has three major goals for his farm: be agronomically sound, be economically smart, and be environmentally safe. Achieving these goals comes down to one thing: efficiency.

“Ten years down the road, I’m going to have to be several times more efficient than I am today because the trends are negative,” he notes. “I feel we’re going to see lower prices. Yet, expenses aren’t going to get any cheaper.”

Water is a precious commodity. Both existing and emerging technology will be key to helping agriculture stay sustainable – not only in Broadwater, Nebraska, but around the world.

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