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01/01/2008 02:00:00 AM

Wireless systems allow growers to run center-pivots remotely, boosting efficiency

By Renee Stern
Contributing Editor

New irrigation control systems, which can be monitored or programmed remotely using wireless communication, allow growers to use water and labor more efficiently.

2007 marked the first full season that Lindsay Corp.'s FieldNET system was in commercial use. Remote telemetry units link each center-pivot to a secure Internet server using either radio or cellular communications, says Reece Andrews, GrowSmart product manager for the Omaha, Neb., company.

Remote access via a cell-phone or Internet connection allows growers to monitor and program each pivot from almost any location. They receive system alarms as cell-phone text messages, automated phone calls or e-mail alerts.

A map-view feature superimposes pivots on a satellite image of growers' fields. Clicking any pivot shows status updates in real time.

FieldNET provides a consistent user interface for the wide array of irrigation pivots on the market, Andrews says.

Growers may set up pivots with any mix of cellular or radio remote telemetry units, although radio units require a radio-to-Internet bridge back at a base station. Repeaters may be needed to extend network range for far-flung operations or to compensate for topographic and other obstructions.

More efficiency and cost savings

Watts Brothers Farming in Paterson, Wash., this year tried FieldNET on 23 center pivots in 2,000 acres of new ground planted with organic peas, sweet corn, carrots, potatoes and grain. The company has used other remote telemetry systems on its 20,000 acres for about 10 years, says Troy Emmerson, irrigation manager.

"Over time we've seen more and more efficiency and cost savings," he says.

Remote control and monitoring are basic requirements when Watts Brothers opens competitive bidding for new irrigation systems to replace aging units, typically 10 to 12 per year.

FieldNET's online server that offers status checks from anywhere at any time is a new feature for the company.

"We like that tremendously," Emmerson says.

Watts Brothers controls all irrigation operations from a central office staffed around the clock, and sends out technicians to maintain the pivots solely on telemetry readings, Emmerson says.

Monitoring from afar

Jeff Sommers, managing partner at Wysocki Produce Farm Inc. in Plainfield, Wis., also cites system accessibility. The company, which began installing similar products about seven years ago, tried FieldNET this year on 4,500 acres of potatoes, processing vegetables and grain.

"It's live from wherever you are at any time," Sommers says.

That's a boon when farming a mix of owned, rented and land-swapped acreage spread across six counties.

"It's hard to have a system in place that's bulletproof and uniform across the land base," he says.

Irrigation managers and operators used to spend too many hours traveling to and from each pivot to keep the system running.

"Five years ago I had six guys doing what three are doing today babysitting (control) panels," .Sommers says.

The change means his manpower now goes further -- and the company spends much less on fuel and vehicle maintenance.

Alerts can be sent to multiple people, ensuring immediate attention and reducing downtime, Sommers says.

A more intangible benefit is improving employee work situations, he says. Operators who once put in long hours away from home now can enjoy camping weekends or other family activities while continuing to monitor system status remotely.

Wireless systems also improve precision. "You can put on just one lap of water when you need it rather than over- or under-applying water," Emmerson says.

That can be crucial when water is scarce. "We've been in a moderate drought situation where we've done a lot of watering," Sommers says. Yet periods of peak electricity demand may force usage restrictions and shutdowns during irrigation cycles.

Shifting watering schedules at short notice without interruption is a breeze thanks to the remote control features, he says.

The system stores irrigation and chemigation data for later study.

"We have our true costs on a weekly basis for water and power," Emmerson says.

As a processor, Watts Brothers also needs trace and recall ability going back to the field. "That's required by a lot of our customers," he says.

Records that tie into yield and other crop data help improve future management decisions. Adding automated sensor devices, such as moisture sensors and rain gauges, are among Sommers' 2008 goals.

An up-front investment

Lindsay offers two tiers of FieldNET service. Advanced service allows users to monitor such features as pivot direction, percentage rate, and water and accessory status, but to control only pivot start and stop. Premier service adds more controls and incorporates integrated sensors to monitor temperature, water pressure, and water and chemical flow.

Telemetry units cost about $750 per pivot, while subscription service ranges from $125 per pivot for seasonal coverage up to $400 per pivot for a full year of premier service, Andrews says.

"It's an up-front investment," Emmerson says. "But as the technology has matured, it's become more affordable even to smaller growers."

Achieving an uninterrupted signal at the necessary strength can be an issue, he says. The farming company needed repeaters to maintain line-of-sight transmission to base stations 12 miles away.

But both men say devising the optimum repeater setup has been the primary technical hitch. The system requires only basic computer know-how and equipment to run.

"It's very user-friendly," Emmerson says.

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