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Slow Welcome for Some New Irrigation Technologies

Irrigation Technology

Precision agriculture technologies, specifically irrigation technologies, are still trying to prove their worth to many producers. The hope is that they would be willing to leave the old ways behind and take a chance on the new technologies for field operations. Technologists often create amazing solutions but fail to make it fit into the grower’s workflow, make it easy to use, or they solve the wrong problem.


The large question is:

What if some new ways have been discovered that could increase yield, save water and/or reduce costs for growers? If it fits in the workflow, is easy to use and solves the correct problem with a return on investment, why wouldn’t this program be taken advantage of?


There are many points with the thought process of applying new technology to one’s farming program. And everyone has their set of standards that make it harder for one to begin a new program within their program.  There are groups of producers that are a risk-tolerant and always willing to try the new tool, even if a return cannot be seen.


Irrigation Scheduling Technology Categories

To begin this analysis, let’s first list out some of the irrigation scheduling technologies that are currently in play for greater acceptance:

  • Physical weather station-based water budget schedulers
  • Virtual sensor-based water budget schedulers
  • Multi-spectral sensing-based schedulers
  • Soil moisture probe-based scheduling
  • Plant turgor pressure-based schedulers
  • Land surface modeling-based schedulers


According to the USDA’s Farm & Ranch Irrigation Survey, which is released every five years, here are the methods of irrigation scheduling categories for the period from 1994 to 2013:

  • Condition of crop
  • Feel of soil
  • Soil moisture sensing device
  • Plant moisture sensing device
  • Daily ET reports
  • Commercial or government scheduling service
  • Water Delivery Organization schedule
  • Personal calendar schedule
  • Computer simulation model schedule
  • Watching neighbors
  • Media reports


To do a proper comparison of technology trends mapping is a very useful product:


The rest of the methods on the USDA list are what may be considered “older techniques” that could be improved upon by new technology if producers are welcoming:

  • Condition of crop
  • Feel of soil
  • Personal calendar schedule
  • Watching neighbors

This “old” list is not meant to suggest that these techniques are bad. The condition of the crop category will always be needed, as there really is no replacement for visual observation of the crop quality. However, even that category could include additional innovations such as drone video, fixed cameras, and other visual tools. That inform producer of what is happening in their fields from day to day. This list simply helps to compare new technologies against some traditional methods.


Why the Stall?

Why are advanced irrigation scheduling technologies not being taken advantage of?

Some answers to this are:

Solve a current problem or job to be done

Provide benefits greater than the current solutions for the job to be done

Be readily accessible and work within the ecosystem of the user


In a recent Q&A Iteris, Inc., Caleb Midgely, briefly commented on some general questions for adopted new irrigation processes.


Question: Is knowing when to irrigate a problem?

Answer: Yes, if you like good yields, I would think so.

Question: Do advanced irrigation scheduling techniques such as virtual sensors, physical sensors, land surface modeling, and ET based calculations provide a benefit over feeling the soil, looking at the calendar, watching the neighbors, etc.?

Answer: For many situations, yes, but the burden is upon the technologist to prove this to the grower.

Question: Are the advanced technologies available and within commonly utilized grower platforms?

Answer: They are certainly available and a growing number of partnerships between irrigation scheduling tools and farm management platforms are occurring.


The problem of switching or adding new processes to a producer’s day to day operation is that they have a business to run. Most don’t have or what to take the time to be a trial for some upstart technologies that may or may not help their yields or production numbers.


However, as the farms begin to switch to the hands of a younger generation that will be more for taking higher risks. Technology testing and installing are projected to increase. Systems such the advances in meteorological analysis and forecasting, sensor technology, land-surface modeling, and crop water utilization understanding will be taken advantage of. Hopefully, the next USDA irrigation survey will indicate this theory.