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Smart Irrigation - Not Just in July

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Written by Kelly Downing |

Hi everyone. It has been quite some time since the lovely lady who organizes and manages these posts has been desperate enough to ask me for a contribution. Further, she asked me to write about “smart irrigation,” since July is Smart Irrigation Month. I have to admit, it is extremely rare for anybody to associate me with anything smart!

The Irrigation Association uses the month of July to focus on the concept of “Smart Irrigation.” This timing makes some sense; in the middle of a hot, dry summer, when irrigation season is keeping us all very busy, it certainly gets our attention. However, I sometimes think we might be missing a key concept.
Smart Irrigation Logo

First, let’s talk about what “smart” irrigation is. This can cover a lot of ground, including water quantity and quality issues, economics, environmental impacts and sociological effects. Due to obvious limitations of time, space and intellect, I will not attempt any kind of comprehensive discussion. Instead, I want to touch on two specific, but key, concepts. These are irrigation effectiveness and irrigation efficiency.

In general, irrigation effectiveness is concerned with getting every bit of water necessary for peak production to the crop. This means the right amount of water, at the right rate, in the right place at the right time. It does not always (or even usually) mean simply pouring on maximum amounts of water constantly. Overwatering can decrease yield and crop quality just as surely as does underwatering.

Irrigation efficiency means using not a single drop more than necessary. It means, also, providing that water in the most economical manner possible. This includes all aspects of the system, including capital investment and operating expenses such as fuel and labor.

Obviously these two areas are not mutually exclusive, and they both involve issues such as soil uniformity and water distribution. However, they are fundamental to all the other areas I listed above.

Summer, and especially July, is when we see these things most vividly, as we look at lush fields and irrigation equipment in operation. It is easy to think about effectiveness and efficiency now, when it is top of mind. However, I think we miss an opportunity if this is the only time and place we focus on “smart irrigation.” Many of the key factors that limit both effectiveness and efficiency of irrigation are structural issues.

During the growing season we are consumed by management issues and day-to-day operations. Let us not forget that there are often decisions made (or neglected) during the off-season that can provide significant improvements to both the effectiveness and the efficiency of the practices we use during the summer. For example, performing proper maintenance can limit in-season breakdowns, lower operating costs and improve operational efficiency during the growing season. Modifying and modernizing pumps and sprinkler packages can improve both effectiveness and efficiency, leading to increased production, lower operating costs and increased profitability.

I am trying to point out that, although July is the “official” Smart Irrigation Month, many of the decisions we make to improve our “irrigation intelligence” are made after the heat, frustration and hyperactivity of summer are mere memories. However, they are often at least as important as the decisions we make when we think we are in a critical time period.

So, my suggestion to you is, as you run 17 different directions this July in your farming operation and your personal life, take a little time for reflection. Think about some of the frustrating aspects of your irrigation operation and make some notes for review later, when you have a little time and are not so hurried and harassed. Consider how some off-season work might make your life easier, better and more profitable next summer.

Maybe it is something as simple as developing a preventative maintenance program for the irrigation equipment in your fields, so you can attend that baseball or soccer game with your kids instead of doing repairs. Perhaps it is more significant, like installing a Variable Frequency Drive on a pump and replacing the sprinkler package on a pivot to lower operating pressure and reduce energy costs. Or it might even be time to replace a furrow irrigation system with a pivot to conserve water and labor.

Whatever you do, make sure you proceed safely. Take your time, enjoy your family, pet the dog. Have a great summer and stay in touch. I look forward to seeing you around.

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