Listen To Your Crop
Story and Photos by Amanda Lima
In the arid, dusty winds of West Texas, many farmers face the ever-present challenges of irrigation. The questions arise of when to irrigate, how much to irrigate and how can this be done in the most efficient way. These questions are now being answered by Smartfield, a Lubbock agritech company, and its innovative products such as SmartCrop, SmartRate and SmartWeather.
The SmartCrop® system is an irrigation management tool that monitors the stress levels each crop may undergo.
The main focus is to monitor the plant’s canopy temperature, a temperature that if exceeded for an extended period of time will cause the plant to stress and can begin to negatively affect the plant.
Researchers and producers are using this new instrument to maintain an irrigation schedule that will give the crop water when it is the most critical time and turn off the water at times when it is not needed. It is a simple and affordable way to maximize profits while saving water.
This innovative system will allow producers and researchers to study and examine irrigation strategies based on the immediate needs of the plant within the growing season. It will also help to make a correlation between each plant and the critical times when water is needed.
Smartfield’s SmartCrop system uses infrared temperature sensors to collect canopy temperature data from each individual crop. This data is then sent to the solar-powered base controller every 15 minutes.
The base controller has the convenience of operating under solar power but can be battery powered if needed.
The base controller of the system then compares the crop canopy temperatures to the crop’s known optimum temperature to determine if the crop is experiencing any levels of water stress.
Finally, the data are sent to Smartfield’s Web site and reported in a simple graph format that shows varying levels of stress.
The producer has many options to utilize this data like receiving the simplest text message that reads IRRIGATE, to receiving an e-mail and logging in daily to view the stress and temperature graphs for each individual sensor.
Thanks to Smartfield, the SmartCrop system has evolved into a more compact, convenient and cost-efficient tool through its generations. The SmartCrop system is now wireless, sturdier, smaller and less expensive than the previous prototypes.
Dr. James Mahan, a plant physiologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service explores the science behind the devices.
Dr. Mahan invented and patented the original SmartCrop system in 1996. The following three years the product seemed to simply sit on the shelf.
“Now, the USDA owns the patent and greatly supports the product,” Mahan explained.
The SmartCrop system has come a long way in its evolution. In the beginning, the infrared sensors were more than $500, and relied on bulky wiring. The current cost of a SmartCrop sensor is around $20.
“What used to be the most expensive part of the system is now the most inexpensive and are conveniently disposable,” according to Mahan.
Producer Glenn Schur of Plainview, Texas, explained that the new technology enabled them to reduce the cost of the new system.
Schur went on to explain that he has saved irrigation water each season for the past five years.
“Depending on the cost of energy, it has saved us anywhere from $10 to $16 per acre inch each year,” he said.
Schur has four sensors attached to each of the two different base controllers on his farmland. He says he checks his graphs online at least two times per day.
Smartfield has added other products that are compatible with the SmartCrop system such as SmartRate and SmartWeather. These products are capable of monitoring weather conditions and additional irrigation systems.
The SmartRate helps the producer manage an underground drip irrigation system. It collects constant flow rates and pressure measurements for the irrigation system every five seconds.
The data is sent to the Smartfield Web site and graphed in one minute increments. The producer has the same options to receive the information and data gathered, whether it is directly from the Web site or by text message.
The SmartRate helps the producer evaluate the performance of drip irrigation systems and gives producers the capability to take appropriate action long before any damage occurs to the crop. Over extended time periods, a multi-year analysis can be done to determine how the irrigation system is performing.
SmartWeather is a remote weather station that can provide the producer or researcher with the exact weather data in a certain location. It uses the Smartfield base station hardware to collect environmental data from the field. The system collects temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, solar radiation, and barometric pressure.
All data SmartWeather gathers are uploaded to the Smartfield Web site. The information can be reviewed or downloaded into a printable spreadsheet.
Taber Black, the marketing director for Smartfield, said the $2,600 cost includes everything a producer needs to run a quarter-section field. It comes with two sensors, a base station, a relative humidity pod, and a rain gauge, each capable of running up to 16 sensors, according to Black.
Smartfield is also planning to produce a smaller unit targeting the average household front and back yards. They plan to make versions that will allow the user to choose the lawn or plant species they are watering on a digital menu display.
Smartfield is currently working with Schur and other farmers to refine the SmartCrop system and to find new ways to address water, energy and climate changes.