TWIN FALLS — If you want farmers to adapt to new methods or technologies, convenience is key.
That’s what Howard Neibling says about irrigation developments made over the past five to 10 years. Neibling is a water management engineer for the University of Idaho Extension Kimberly Research Center. He’s been experimenting with a new method of pivot irrigation that saves water — and it’s slowly being adopted by Idaho’s farming industry.
While new technologies and methods can help farmers save water and increase efficiency with irrigation, experts say there’s a generational gap when it comes to their acceptance. That gap is expected to narrow over the next 15 years as younger farmers move into the industry.
“They’re the ones that are going to demand a lot of technology — because they’re used to it,” CropLogic Western Territories Manager Scott Barclay said.
A new market
CropLogic is a New Zealand-based company with international offices in Australia and the U.S. The company chose to launch an office at the College of Southern Idaho last year, however, because it believes the Idaho potato industry would particularly benefit from its technologies.
CropLogic’s soil moisture probe — or capacitance probe — uses an electrical current to measure soil moisture.
“Any time you can get information, that helps you raise a better crop,” Barclay said. “Especially with potatoes, quality is huge.”
The voltage is low enough it doesn’t hurt the crops, and sensors reaching 4 inches deep also measure soil temperature. The probes range from 2 to 6 feet long. They are designed to help farmers improve their irrigation practices by calculating evapotranspiration — water loss from the plant due to heat and the plant using it — Barclay said.
The complicated nature of the soil moisture probes over the past few decades made farmers less inclined to adopt them, Niebling said. Farmers instead opted to use the “hand-feel” method of digging up dirt, clumping and smearing it on one’s hands to determine moisture content. That’s in part because the older probes had to be hooked up to a computer to download readings.
“They started out sort of rudimentary,” Barclay said. “As time goes on, they’ve gotten better and better.”
Today, the company’s probes send data once per hour to a satellite, and farmers can access that data from the cloud. Each probe uses weather information from other sources to help make its calculations.
Potatoes are especially sensitive when it comes to watering, Barclay said. Under-water and you have a lower quality and lower yield; over-water and the potatoes are too wet and become diseased.
The sensors help farmers see where they are within the optimum range, so they can change their irrigation practices accordingly.
Barclay still recommends using a combination of the hand-feel method and the sensors, to ensure accuracy. The sensors can take inaccurate readings if they aren’t calibrated to the correct soil type — or if a tuber begins growing up against the probe.
The technology still has room to improve. Companies are working to find ways to connect a sensor to a pivot to collect even more information.
“You can never replace the man in the field,” Barclay said.
Barclay expects farmers will become more accepting of the technology, especially if future government regulation increases enforcement of water rights and penalizes those who use more than their share.
Irrigation pivots have become more sophisticated, to the point where today’s farmers can control them from their phones, Neibling said. But newer technologies and ways to gather information are driving more research.
Over the past five years, Neibling has been working on a research project with Troy Peters at Washington State University. The researchers wanted to find out if lowering the sprinkler systems on irrigation pivots would reduce water usage.
What they discovered: lowering sprinkler heads from a height of 5 or 6 feet down to 12 or 18 inches can reduce water usage by 15 to 20 percent.
“It does cost a fair bit to retrofit a pivot,” Neibling said, “but if you use less water, that can be a benefit.”
Nozzle manufacturers, in turn, are improving the equipment to make it easier and more affordable to retrofit the pivots, he said. Drip irrigation is also becoming a water-saving solution in some parts of the West.
As irrigation becomes more technologically advanced, farmers have more options for improving their watering systems. It’s made irrigation scheduling a lot more reasonable, affordable and convenient. And the more convenient it is, Neibling said, the more likely growers are to opt in.