Producers could stay thoroughly connected to their field moisture if a system developed by Ensemble Scientific and LiteFarm proves itself in Farming Smarter fields.
With the Soil Moisture Monitoring project, our goal is to connect real time soil conditions and moisture levels to external information, e.g., weather forecasts, and package it into an accessible prescription for producers.
This will all be compiled into a report, accessible on the farmer's phone, and usable for controlling the pivot. The report includes a summary of current soil moisture conditions, anticipated changes based on weather, and models of the crop's water usage.
With this system, producers will have an easy way to decide the best course of action for their fields. "We want it to tie in nicely with their irrigation system," says Lewis Baarda, Farming Smarter's Field Tested Manager. Included in the report will be a recommendation for the producer.
This will include subsequent steps to take, or if any action is even required. For instance, if it's going to start raining tomorrow and continue for the next three days ≥ maybe you want to hold off on watering your field today, even if it is starting to dry up.
However, part of the challenge is designing the system. A complex system like this requires a lot of moving parts. Getting those parts to work with one-another can create obstacles of their own.
Thankfully, we're not alone in this endeavor! Ensemble Scientific worked on the technology; developing the process for the sensors to transmit data, how it compiles the background analytics and the way it forms the report.
LiteFarm created the system that packages information into a format that irrigation systems can access and use.
While this system is incredibly complicated on our end, we expect it to be simple and easy for the user!
Ease of use top of mind
"We want producers to better understand how much water is available and provide them with the ability to quickly judge the best course of action with the report," says Dr. Mark Johnson, lead researcher on the project at Ensemble Scientific and Professor of Ecohydrology at the University of British Columbia.
Johnson brings 20 years of experience in data acquisition systems to develop this system. His mission with this project is to demonstrate the economic return precision irrigation systems provide, as well as the value proposition of an automated crop management system.
Unsurprisingly, we have encountered numerous challenges while developing this system. The biggest, variability.
Currently, there is no known one-cure-fixes-all solution with soil moisture and it's unlikely that there will ever be one. The variability of conditions within a field is hardly symmetrical, hills and low spots have completely different moisture levels. That's not to mention, the rate of evapotranspiration (how much water is evaporated in addition to what is used by the plant) varies across a field, let alone between two fields.
For us, this means that there is no template prescription we can give to producers. To overcome this challenge, we placed sensors to read the soil moisture levels throughout the field.
Right now, each location has sensors at multiple depths. This provides a better understanding of the rooting zone and provides us with the areas of the field that have a higher or lower moisture level than the rest of the field. However, there is still much work to be done.
While this work is still in its early beta phase, the Field Tested team has multiple methods to test what works. Currently, the team uses the system to go through the full workflow from 24-7 moisture readings to developing prescriptions.
Earlier in 2022, we installed the proof-of-concept design on one center pivot. It takes information from the sensors and compares it with local weather data to create a prescription that can be packaged and delivered to the producer electronically.
If weather patterns remain chaotic, irrigation scheduling may be a challenge. One project goal is to develop ease of producer input ≥ e.g., set the trigger level for irrigating fields ≥ and make it accessible to the operator and show how much water the field needs.
After discovering a system that works, the next step will be to upgrade the sensors.
"Over the next few years, we want to build our suite of available sensors to include a single sensor that reads at multiple depths at individual locations," says Johnson.
Innovative project fits Farming Smarter purpose
The system includes robust sensors and a GPS for sensor locations and time stamps. This system works on telemetry, sending data to the cloud.
Part of overcoming these challenges is to identify and create zones in the field.
"We can't put a million sensors out, so we must find a way that is accurate and reliable to predict what happens between sensors," says Baarda.
"What we've done for this project is put more sensors than we think we need, and if we find that some of them behave in the same way then we know it's a duplication."
Another challenge is staying connected to the subterranean sensors.
The sensors provide real time updates on soil conditions and moisture levels throughout the field. The goal is to use this information to create prescriptions for the farmer. This system will let growers know what state a field is in and how to best manage it in terms of moisture.
"We want real time access and rural internet comes with issues of its own," comments Baarda.
Unfortunately, there are physical limitations the team must be aware of, especially on the sensor side. For instance, an antenna helps the system stay connected to the sensors but it's at risk of being hit by sprayers and tractors because it sticks out of the ground.
While the team works out the kinks with the sensors, they continue to battle with the elaborate design of the system to make it work well.
"Our largest challenge is that technology is difficult to navigate," states Baarda. "With a system of this scale, everything must be connected properly for it to work right."
Each part of the system has its own requirements.
This system gives farmers hands-off, variable rate irrigation technology
While the developers hope to see widespread implementation of this system, one of the first obstacles to clear up is the current reputation of variable rate irrigation systems.
"We have databases and algorithms to present the information to producers easily and in an accessible format," comments Johnson.
"VRI systems have a significant learning curve, one of the challenges our project tackles to create a seamless introduction to system for producers. Because our system takes measurements from across the field and generates a real time prescription to meet varying conditions, it removes some of the difficulty of the VRI system by producing a file the pivot can run," he adds.
"By successfully implementing this system on a field, producers can get a better plan for irrigation and use VRI-pivots to dial in on the exact measurement of water they need to apply at any given location."
While the system is designed to work alongside VRI systems, it provides benefits to producers without VRI systems as well.
By July this year, Lethbridge had 50% more rainfall in 2022 than in all of 2021 and many areas dry out slower than others. While this usually makes it more difficult for producers, this system will detect which areas held moisture longer and include it in the report.
The main factors that affect how fast water leaves the soil are temperature, humidity, wind speed, and cloudiness. These factors interplay with crop stages to determine how much water disappears.
"By knowing how much water is in the "bank" (i.e., the soil) from the sensors, we can estimate the 'withdraw' rate and get a sense of how many days in the future you'll have to make a 'deposit'," says Johnson.
Watch Lewis Baarda & Dr. Mark Johnson discuss this project at Field School 2022!
Or, check out our Variable Rate Irrigation Plot Shots to check out this project!