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.”

RCPP funds available for irrigation monitoring equipment

Are you interested in adding telemetry-based monitoring equipment to the irrigation system on your farm?  If so, stop by your local USDA-NRCS service center to ask about cost-share funding available through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).

This equipment, typically used with a center pivot or subsurface drip irrigation system, allows monitoring data to be transmitted by telemetry to smart phones, tablets, or other handheld devices. These data help determine if irrigation systems are operating at peak efficiency - which results in water and energy savings for producers.

The RCPP program is an option for producers that were unable to receive funding from HPWD's Assistance in Irrigation Management (AIM) program. The $225,000 in grant funding provided by the Texas Water Development Board was claimed by producers in less than two weeks after the program was announced in August.

This equipment is being cost-shared through RCPP, which is administered by the USDA-NRCS, and requires "a flow meter to be installed on the irrigation system where the irrigation system monitoring system is installed as a companion device."  If a contract is awarded, payment for these practices cannot be made until the first year's monitoring data are provided to the NRCS.

About $900,000 in funding was allocated for the five year program (2016-2020). As of Dec. 8, USDA-NRCS officials said the agency has obligated 39 contracts totaling $227,208 on 24,772 acres. This leaves $672,792 in available funds for the remainder of the program.

Participation in RCPP is entirely voluntary. Interested producers can sign up for the program at their local USDA-NRCS service center.

High Plains Underground Water Conservation District (HPWD) in Lubbock serves as the lead RCPP partner. Supporting partners include Hemphill County UWCD in Canadian, Llano Estacado UWCD at Seminole, Mesa UWCD at Lamesa, North Plains GCD at Dumas, Sandy Land UWCD at Plains, and South Plains UWCD at Brownfield.

These groundwater conservation districts do not receive any funding for the program, but provide in-kind services to assist with water conservation efforts.

Additional information about RCPP is available at www.tx.nrcs.usda.gov. USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer, and lender.