Growing More With Less

Advancing irrigation technology allows farmers to use data to control water applications based on current conditions—all from their smartphones

By Kathy Ursprung

Stan Ashbrook’s Dufur field
On the left side of the irrigation apparatus in Stan Ashbrook’s Dufur field, mid-elevation sprayers hang above the alfalfa crop they irrigate. At right above, it is difficult to see the spray from the low-elevation spray applicators because the application is at crop level, providing greater efficiency. In the center foreground, a sensor monitors groundwater.

Farming may be one of the most traditional pursuits on the planet, but since the dawn of civilization, farmers have been advancing technology to put food on our tables—from hand-planted, hand-watered, and hand-picked crops to today’s computerized combines and giant irrigation pivots.

Two advancing developments in irrigation help farmers use real-time data to determine field and weather conditions, irrigation equipment efficiency, and limit water loss to evaporation so they grow their crops with less water and less electricity required to pump that water.

“What we’re talking about today is innovative,” says Robert Wallace. “It’s the next step.”

Robert is the executive director and certified energy manager for Wy’East Resource and Conservation Development, which educates and assists agriculture producers and small rural businesses on energy efficiency and renewable energy topics.

The nonprofit organization has a Nature Resources Conservation Service grant to develop Advanced Precision Irrigation 2.0, an approach that uses sensors and telemetry installed on the current irrigation system to monitor operation and optimize the use of the system.

A 2016 agriculture irrigation market study by the Bonneville Power Administration says many experts believe the future of irrigation will be data-driven. Irrigation accounts for the greatest amount of BPA program savings, and scientific irrigation scheduling contributed most of the annual savings.

In fact, BPA identified programs such as those Robert and his associates are working on as key agriculture program opportunities.

The 2.0 technology is paired with new low-elevation, precision application sprinkler use on irrigation pivots in a demonstration on the Stan Ashbrook farm in Dufur.

In the past, pivots—the crawling Growing More With Less circular irrigation systems—relied on high-pressure impact sprinklers.

“When center pivots came out, the high-pressure impact sprinklers on the top of the pipe used a lot of energy to pressurize the sprinklers,” says Troy Peters, extension irrigation specialist and associate professor at Washington State University. “A lot of water was lost to wind drift—about 40 percent of water.”

In recent years, irrigators have adopted mid-elevation spray application sprinklers that hang 5 to 8 feet above the crops and spray over an area with a much smaller circumference. Current technology offers savings in energy costs and increased efficiency to about 85 percent.

The new LEPA sprinklers apply water at crop level, significantly reducing water loss and improving efficiency to 97 percent on average. Operating pressure also is significantly reduced.

Robert Wallace
Robert Wallace of Wy’East Resource Conservation and Development explains how new technology can help farmers save on irrigation costs and possibly improve crop yield.

“We’re only losing about 4 percent to wind drift and evaporation, which means a lot more water gets to the ground per gallon,” Troy says. “We’re saving water and saving energy.”

Troy estimates those savings can pay back the cost of initial investment in four or five years.

In areas where growers don’t have enough water, savings are not all of the potential benefit. It can also mean improved crop yields. “We can help them make more money,” Troy says.

These innovations may be particularly significant for farmers in areas such as the Dufur Valley, which is reliant on the Fifteen Mile Creek watershed. The watershed is experiencing groundwater depletion. That is where data and telemetry from Advanced Precision Irrigation 2.0 come in to help the farmer more efficiently use this scarce resource.

“Think of water in the soil as a bank— a bank of water stored for the crop,” Robert explains. “He can use that to know how much water he wants to apply as the pivot goes around and when to start and stop irrigation.”

In addition to monitoring soil moisture with sensors in the field, sensors on the irrigation apparatus can monitor pump operation and water application efficiency.

“We want the farmer to be able to get all the information he needs on his smartphone to give him better tools to manage the irrigation,” Robert says. “He’ll be standing in his field and be able to see what it’s costing him to pump, the gallons per minute, the pressure, and what the efficiency of that pump is.”

Having this data at his fingertips can help the farmer modify his irrigation practices to become more efficient.

Take a typical windy, low-humidity, 90-degree summer day, for example.

“You’d be losing a lot of water to evaporation,” Robert says. “The hope is that maybe if he has a tool to see what the numbers are, the farmer can trim back the use of his sprinklers for the next couple of hours until the wind dies down, or maybe adjust the speed of the pivot based on current conditions.”

Robert is partnering with two industry experts to develop the 2.0 technology:

Jac le Roux of Irrinet LLC, an irrigation consultant in the Pacific Northwest; and Fred Vosper, an agriculture engineer on more than 450 farm energy-management plans in Oregon and Washington.

“At the end of the day, the question is, ‘Will farmers use it?’ We’re pushing the envelope,” Robert says.

Similar technology is already used on large corporate farming operations, but Robert hopes the 2.0 system will be useful for smaller operations, too.

Northern Wasco County PUD does not have a lot of irrigation customers and relies on the expertise of people such as Robert, as well as BPA’s programs.

“We’ll look at any project that can save energy and help a customer,” says Lance Kublick, conservation specialist with the PUD. “It’s a whole new field to me, but if they can use the pump less, they will use less energy.”

For more information on Advanced Precision Irrigation 2.0, contact Robert Wallace at Wy’East Resource Conservation and Development, at (541) 223-9683 or Robert's Email. For more on LEPA irrigation, contact Troy Peters at Washington State University, at (509) 786-9247 or Troy Peters by Email.