Brent Metcalfe can sum up in a few words what irrigation monitoring saves his Manitoba potato operation.
“Lots of gas and time,” is the way Metcalfe explained it to fellow producers attending the recent Potato Production Days in Brandon.
Metcalfe, who operates WM Ventures near Treherne, has been working with Bruce Shewfelt and the PFRA to test a pilot remote monitoring system. Metcalfe shares a river-pumping irrigation system with another nearby grower and irrigates about 1,000 acres a year. The system was built in 2003, can run six pivots simultaneously and features three river pumps, two booster stations and four water distribution lines.
“It works fairly well, but it can be a bit difficult to operate,” Metcalfe said. “We’re fairly spread out with our fields, and you need to be able to understand what’s going on in the whole system to run it properly.”
For example, if too many pivots are operated simultaneously, pressure can drop throughout the entire system, causing major problems. It means he and his neighbour need to know what pivots are in use and where on each other’s operations, Metcalfe says – something that can be a real hassle without a monitoring system. There are also a few quarters that aren’t full quarters, which can make for a lot of running around keeping tabs on pivots and shutting them down before they wind up wrapped around a tree. It’s all a recipe for fairly high expenditures in certain areas of the operation.
But last season that all changed when the remote sensing system was installed. It takes information from an array of high-tech equipment, including soil moisture readers, pivot sensors and pump sensors, gathers the data using a radio relay system and transmits it every 15 minutes by Internet to a company in Chatham, Ontario.
That company then logs and administers all the data. It manages the website that Metcalfe uses to access it and sets up cellphone alerts that tells him when there’s a problem or an issue that will require his attention shortly.
“It saves a lot of time and labour and running back and forth,” Metcalfe says.
It also means a grower can live a bit more “normal” life during irrigation season, Metcalfe says. They don’t have to be constantly checking pivots and getting up in the middle of the night to run out to a field to shut a system down. They can now do that from the comfort of home or, using a hand-held or laptop, from the baseball diamond or golf course.
“Turning pivots off – the ability to do that remotely was big for me,” Metcalfe says.
Another unexpected benefit was the system’s data-logging capacity. It means Metcalfe can go back and check weather data, irrigation scheduling and all sorts of other information and match it to production issues.
“It really helps us figure out what the heck happened and why,” Metcalfe says.
Having the system on site has also meant far more reliable data right down to basic stuff like rainfall. While a good old-fashioned rain gauge might be proven technology, Metcalfe says he prefers the newfangled electronic version.
“It seems like there were always problems with the rain gauge – did I empty it? Did it get driven over? Was there a leaf over it?” says Metcalfe. “With these, you know.”
On part of the technology that the operation hasn’t made full use of are the ground moisture sensors – though Metcalfe admits that’s likely a question of personal preference more than anything else.
“I’m still a believer in driving out, digging a hole and having a feel,” he says.
Another minor quibble was the display for the data, which was sometimes a bit counterintuitive to read. Overall however, Metcalfe says he’s pleased with the results and found it kept himand his employees off the road.
“I won’t even tell you how much fuel we saved, because I’m not entirely convinced there’s not a problem with the number – but it was a lot,” he says.
“It brought more value than I ever would have thought to our farm.”