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Technology subs for labor

Telemetry helps this Nebraska family boost efficiency and conserve water

Employees are key in helping farmers carry busy workloads. Finding qualified employees willing to work on farms and live in rural areas is becoming more difficult, though, and that limits farm growth. 

That’s the position Scott McPheeters and his sons, Clark and Kerry, found themselves in when it came to their irrigation strategy. Five to six people took two to three hours each to gravity-irrigate their crops.  

“It was hard to find those people,” says Scott. “It was pretty specialized labor, setting the rows so the water would go through at the same time to avoid runoff.”

Switched to center pivot irrigation

That changed when they switched from gravity to center pivot irrigation. Then, efficiency and labor and time savings zoomed when the McPheeterses installed soil-moisture meters with telemetry to transmit soil data wirelessly to a computer or cell phone.

“Watching those probes is where the bulk of the decision-making gets made on whether to irrigate or not,” says Clark. 

These days, one of the McPheeterses monitor pivots for about a half hour in the morning via cell phone or computer and another half hour at night. That’s boosted efficiency and reduced the need for outside labor. 

“When you’re out checking pivots and one quits 15 minutes after you drive away, it’s not a big deal if you get a text or email telling you it’s down,” says Clark. “But if you don’t have any remote monitoring capability, you can lose 12 to 24 hours of irrigation.”

“It also allows us to be better stewards of water,” adds Scott. “It enables remote starting and running of systems only when needed.”

Telemetry helps load management

Telemetry also enables the McPheeterses to use the most incentivized form of load management. Utilities use load management programs to limit costs that result when electricity use peaks at high levels. In exchange for being shut down from power, irrigators pay lower electricity rates. 

Without telemetry, problems could easily fester, says Scott. 

“Say you’re shut off (under load management ) a couple days out of the week,” he says. “You could lose your window of opportunity (during the days irrigation is permitted) if your pivot was down due to a lost wheel gear or a flat tire.” 

With telemetry, farmers can quickly be notified, enabling repairs to be rapidly made to get the pivot up and running.

“We debated about telemetry for some time,” says Kerry. 

The big hang-up was the $1,000- to $1,500-per-center-pivot price tag. Still, the system – installed just before the 2012 drought – quickly paid for itself. 

“We’d have a pretty tough time going without it right now,” says Clark. “In fact, we’re on our second telemetry system because the first one was getting older and didn’t have as many capabilities.”

Telemetry on irrigation center pivots is booming because it hones efficiency and enables more to be done with less labor, says Scott. 

“There are producers you swear wouldn’t have adopted it, but you see them pulling out their cell phone and checking their pivots,” he says.

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