New irrigation technology, most of it to improve efficient use of water, is continually being introduced to the marketplace. There appears to be no lack of engineering and science-based technology for agricultural producers to use in their operations—especially with pivot and drip irrigation systems.
“Irrigation technologies are right where they need to be, if not ahead of the market adoption. It is a matter of the marketplace moving to the level of the most sophisticated technology,” said Mark Huntley, 2011 president of the Irrigation Association and liaison for John Deere Water, which specializes in agricultural drip irrigation technology.
At the chance of upsetting some of his fellow drip irrigation marketers, Huntley expressed an opinion that probably the most significant technological advancement to have the biggest impact on agricultural irrigation in the last few years is the development of variable rate pivot irrigation.
“Variable rate application that can be on pivots is probably one of the better technologies that has come out in recent years,” he said. “And because of the install base that you have with pivots, it will have a greater impact than perhaps other innovations in the drip area that might actually be better innovations but won’t be installed on as many acres right now.”
No Shortage of Companies
There is no lack of engineering and science support for irrigation innovation. Huntley noted that there are plenty of companies investing in research and development. Consolidation of companies has occurred in the industry, but there is no void of companies improving technology.
“What I would say has happened is the number of $25 million and up companies has gone down, but the number of smaller companies has increased significantly. Technology is advancing at a rapid pace—especially on the sensing and software side. In my opinion, more of those products have been developed rapidly and brought to market by smaller companies,” Huntley said.
The smaller companies are developing some “bleeding edge stuff, not even cutting edge, because that development is done more rapidly in a small company willing to take more risks,” he said. Full-scale commercialization often occurs as the larger companies acquire the technology and bring it to the mass market.
Training Is a Challenge
Technology is not the main challenge for increasing water use efficiency in agricultural operations. Huntley noted the need for education and training for use of existing and new technology.
“There are some very, very good technologies readily available today no matter what type of irrigation system a grower decides to use to irrigate fields. What needs to happen is more education of people about how to correctly use existing technologies and incorporate new technologies. And you shouldn’t have to buy a whole new pivot to have a pivot working efficiently and similarly for a drip system,” Huntley said.
It is not acceptable in this day of water efficiency goals to not use soil moisture sensing. Not having an understanding of soil types and field drainage is similarly not appropriate, say those critical of agricultural use of water and also those within the irrigation industry.
Certified Water Managers
The IA has initiated the Certified Agricultural Water Manager program to offer broad-based training. According to Josh Mosier, the first person to receive this certification by the IA, such certification has its advantages. “It is really a certification to show that you have the correct knowledge to operate, manage, maintain and work with irrigation systems whatever type of irrigation that may be,” he explained. The first exams to earn this new certification were given in December 2010.
Some experienced irrigation professionals have the knowledge to pass the certification exam without much study or completing special classes offered by IA, while others need to complete education. Mosier, who at the time had been in design and sales with Reinke Manufacturing for almost 10 years and was a Certified Irrigation Designer, helped the IA revise some of the original questions. Mosier, living in Nebraska, has moved over to working for Agro-Culture Liquid Fertilizer as a sales account manager but still uses what he learned to earn the IA certification.
“I personally am not in the irrigation industry any longer, but my water manager certification really ties together with nutrition management. Understanding how the plant uptakes water and uses water ties directly with nutrient management,” Mosier said.
“Understanding how different types of irrigation systems are going to work is important. But there is also a lot of teaching about soil, water and plant relationships—understanding how the water is moving in the soils and how the plants can uptake the water, understanding the water-holding capacity of different soils and much more. Getting people to the point where they can precisely define when and how much irrigation is needed all comes back to save water,” he said.
The training to become certified is diverse and also includes education on understanding drainage, grading and typography’s affect on water delivery.
Being unbiased in teaching about irrigation systems is mandatory for the certification to be viewed as worthwhile by those in the industry and large-acreage producers who could benefit from certification. “What the certification does is show that you have a working knowledge of all systems and you can understand which type of system is going to work best in particular areas,” Mosier said.
The IA was founded with a base of membership primarily in the landscape business, and it still has a large contingency of members involved in turf and landscape. Mosier said, “The agricultural irrigation membership is really growing, and that is because ag is the largest user of water for irrigation in the world. When you look at it, there is a lot to be gained with proper irrigation management on the ag side.”
As Huntley noted, educated and trained consultants and installers can be a limiting factor to bringing new technology into the marketplace fast. He explained that drip irrigation education and training has been historically done more by universities than any other organizations. As for pivot irrigation, training has come more from individual manufacturers.
New Education Director
Education is an increasing emphasis for the IA as shown by the certification programs and the recently announced hiring of a new education director with a strong agricultural background.
Bob von Bernuth, Ph.D., has been given the responsibility to “drive the development and execution of a new association educational plan with the objective of delivering high quality content and materials to Irrigation Association members, nonmembers, college and university instructors and students,” according to the IA hiring announcement.
“For the last 20 years, he has served Michigan State University in a variety of roles, including professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering; director of the construction management program; founding director of the School of Planning, Design and Construction; and most recently as the assistant dean for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources,” the IA included in its announcement.
Evolving Need for Standards
Through common members and various liaisons, standards for proper equipment, installation and maintenance have been developed by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) in conjunction with the IA for many years. A recently signed memorandum of understanding between the two organizations strengthens the collaborative relationship. The two organizations will continue to work together to develop standards for agriculture and will expand to address the growing need for standards covering turfgrass and landscape topics as well.
ASABE will be working closely to develop new standards and practices that usually become codes adopted by governmental bodies for installation requirements, necessary maintenance and repair operations including interchangeability of equipment components, explained Scott Cedarquist, director of standards and technical activities for ASABE.
“The standards are used by designers and installers, and ASABE standards often are used as teaching aids,” Cedarquist noted. “Land grant universities in absence of text books will often use the standards for classroom tools.”