Improving Irrigation Efficiency with Telemetry

By Katherine Drury, HPWD Conservation Connect

There have been many advances in irrigation technology during the past century. Low Energy Precision Application (LEPA) center pivot systems and subsurface drip irrigation have taken the place of furrow irrigation with open, unlined ditches. With irrigation application efficiencies nearing 100 percent, researchers and irrigation equipment manufacturers are turning their attention to improved system monitoring and scheduling.

Telemetry technology, allowing remote monitoring and control of center pivot and subsurface drip irrigation systems, is an emerging trend among producers. The most basic systems allow the producer to remotely monitor an irrigation system and turn it on or off by clicking a button on his phone or computer. The more advanced telemetry systems can incorporate soil moisture information and weather data to help a producer schedule irrigation.

Jonathan James, a cotton and wheat producer in Floyd and Crosby Counties, utilizes monitoring technology on his irrigation systems. He said this equipment has been a valuable addition to his operation. “Mrs. FieldNet,” as James’ wife calls it, frequently sends him text messages about the status of his irrigation systems. This keeps him in the loop, if a system fails.

Earlier this summer, he and his family were about to take a day trip out of town. As always, he checked his irrigation systems that morning before leaving.

“I drove by a system with one of the monitors on it,” James said. “Everything was fine. The monitor said it was fine. Visually, it was running.”

He drove to check on the final center pivot. After ensuring that it was working properly, he turned around to go home before leaving town.

“That one pivot that I had driven by ten minutes earlier texted me that it had shut off,” he said. “I stopped by and had it fixed in about 30 minutes. If I had been without the monitoring system, the pivot would’ve sat there for 24 hours before I made it back again.”

He estimates that he could have lost upwards of half a million gallons of water down the turn row had he not been immediately notified of the irrigation system malfunction.

James manages 19 center pivots. He drives about three hours every day to check on each of his fields and irrigation systems. He said this telemetry equipment helps him prioritize his route.

“I farm from north of Lorenzo to south of Dougherty. It takes me about three hours to make a circle to see every one of them. I still go to every one every day, but if I get up and see that one is off, I know I’m going there first and then make my circle rather than going around and showing up there at 11 o’clock. That’s another four or five hours it might have saved me.”

He said irrigation systems can shut down for a variety of reasons, which range from getting stuck in the mud to power surges. He estimates that on average, one of his systems malfunctions every day during the irrigation season. The ability to remotely communicate with his irrigation systems has been invaluable.

“The amount of time that it saves you and the information you collect from it is such a useful tool.”

Telemetry allows producers to track when their systems were turned on or off and how long they are in operation. This data can be exported and evaluated with each data point serving as an opportunity to learn and refine the process for next season.

“Efficiency is the name of the game in farming. Every year, we’re trying to squeeze just a little more and a little more, and this increases my efficiency of keeping machines running.”

Nov. 14 Ogallala Commons Playa Field Day at Crosbyton

Approximately 20 persons – including landowners, Master Naturalists, and teachers – attended the Nov. 14 Crosby County Playa Basin Field Day in Crosbyton.

 The meeting featured an overview of playa basins in the Southern High Plains region, a presentation about waterfowl and fall migration patterns, and an update on the Playa Basin Restoration Program sponsored by the Texas Playa Conservation Initiative.

 “Playa basins are the most important place for birds on the Southern Great Plains,” said Dr. Darryl Birkenfeld of Nazareth, executive director of Ogallala Commons. “Each year, thousands of birds make their way along the Central Flyway, where they eat and rest at up to 60,000-80,000 playa basins along the route.”

 Birkenfeld said Ogallala Commons sponsors playa field days for adults and playa festivals for students to increase knowledge of the importance of playa basins and their restoration.

 Texas Master Naturalist Jim Steiert of Hereford agrees.

 “Playa basins are truly the ‘Rodney Dangerfield’ of the plant world. They do not get the respect they deserve. The Central Flyway is the second most important migration and wintering area for waterfowl and other migratory birds.  There is increasing evidence that playa basins in this area are the most valuable habitat for these birds,” he said.

 Steiert said migratory birds are attracted to “habitats created by plant communities responding to a changing environment.” In essence, the birds travel to those areas with abundant food and water.  He noted that migrating Sandhill cranes appeared in the Hereford area on October 3 – about two weeks earlier than normal.

 “Playas are the keystone of the Great Plains ecosystem. They are the stone that holds it all together. It is sort of like playing Jenga.  Everything is fine until you remove the piece that causes the tower to fall,” Steiert said.

 He encouraged the group to take care of playas on their property and near their communities.

 “Playas are the sources of recharge for groundwater stored in the Ogallala Aquifer. It is important to have grass barriers around the playas to remove silt, which improves the quality of the water that may ultimately make its way back into the aquifer,” Steiert said.

 Another way to improve the playas is through a voluntary restoration program, sponsored by the Texas Playa Conservation Initiative.

 “There are about 23,037 playa basins in Texas.  Of these, 4,080 are functional, 5,631 are functional and at risk in the next 20-30 years, and 13,326 are non-functional.  A loss of buffer area, land development, and modification of the basins have all taken their toll on playas,” said Don Kahl with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

 He told the group about the Texas Playa Conservation Initiative (TPCI), which is a partner-driven effort to restore playas in the Texas Panhandle.

 Years ago, it was a common practice to dig pits or trenches into the bottom of playa basins.  Irrigation tailwater and/or rainfall collected in these pits.  Lake pumps transported the water to the head of the field for reuse.

 “Many of these pits and trenches are no longer needed and can be easily restored. Once the pit is backfilled, rainwater and runoff can again reach the entire playa basin, including the large cracks in the dry playa floor. This is essential for recharge to occur. It also allows plants and insects to flourish—which provides food for migrating birds and other wildlife,” he said.

 Kahl said landowners participating in the program incur no costs associated with restoring a playa.

 “We coordinate and conduct all the work.  To compensate for any inconvenience, there is an $80 per playa basin acre payment upon completion of the restoration,” he said.

 Playa restoration efforts are currently concentrated in Armstrong, Castro, Crosby, Floyd, Hale, Hockley, Lubbock, Lynn, and Swisher Counties. 

 The program has resulted in 489 playa basin acres restored to date.

 In addition to restoration efforts, Kahl said other conservation practices could be included in the program.

“This could include installing grass buffers around farmed playas, silt removal, and incentivizing leaving grass buffers around playas in expired Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land,” he said.

 A tour of a restored playa, located three miles east of Cone, TX, concluded the Field Day.

 Precinct One Director Dan Seale and Information/Education Supervisor Carmon McCain represented HPWD at the field day.

 Additional information is available at ogallalacommons.org and PlayasWorkForTexans.com