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Lessons could also mean improved quality of life for Midsouth producers.

Forrest Laws

March 25, 2024

4 Min Read
Poly Pipe
Quality of life benefits may ultimately match or even outweigh savings of fuel, electricity, and labor associated with remote pump shutoff.Farm Press

The road to automating Midsouth row crop irrigation has been paved with good intentions. But that hasn’t made the process any less frustrating for farmers.

Joe Massey, a research agronomist with the USDA-ARS Delta Water Management Research Unit in Jonesboro, says there have been several attempts at irrigation automation. Nearly all failed to an extent, some spectacularly so.

Massey, who spoke on “Practical Improvements in Irrigation Pump Automation & Control Technology” at the 26th annual Arkansas Soil and Water Education Conference and Irrigation Expo 2024 at Arkansas State University, said at least three lessons have helped manufacturers turn the corner on irrigation pump automation−especially remote pump shutoff−that could improve irrigation water management and quality of life for producers and their staff.

Three lessons

They are:

  1. Communication issues that plagued earlier radio-based attempts have been largely addressed by using cell modems that are increasingly affordable and reliable.

  2. Current designs allow the producer to regain system control if and when problems arise with the pump controller. For electric wells, the user simply switches back from “auto” to “manual” mode. For internal combustion engines, bypassing the remote control system now involves swapping out two wires or toggling to “manual” for systems that incorporate a switch in their designs.

  3. Last but not least, system designers have internalized that a “fundamental mismatch” exists between the time available to install these systems versus the time available to diagnose and repair them during the compressed, high-stakes irrigation season where a well going off-line can have catastrophic consequences. Early designers didn’t fully internalize that it may take a week or more before a technician could arrive to determine which component broke and what they need to do to get the system up and running again.

This last oversight resulted in past systems being “overly ambitious” in their offerings, resulting in complexity that not only increased costs and extended payback periods but decreased system reliability.

Perfect storm

Combined with the lack of a by-pass, decreased reliability created a perfect storm resulting in system failures, delayed repairs, and increasing frustrations. “Some early adopters have understandably assumed a ‘fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me’ mindset, Massey said.

However, Massey thinks producers should reconsider systems that have learned the above lessons. 

To understand how producers might benefit from remote pump shutoff, Massey and Gustavo Lima, a visiting PhD student with the Federal University at Pelotas, Brazil, worked closely with a father-son operation.

“They told us what they grew, how they moved from irrigating corn to rice and to soybeans,” he said. “We measured the distance between fields and pumps and how much time it would take to shut off the pumps. We tried to come up with total pumping times and how long the wells would run between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. when they said they’re not out there turning wells off.”

Study involvement

The study involved 21 wells that served about 51 fields or sets. They assumed the farmers applied about three acre-inches of water per irrigation event, and they estimated the total amount of water and the time and fuel usage over a single season, all of which was documented by Lima.

“Gustavo tried to recreate that with each little circuit, and it got very tedious,” said Massey. “These producers managed irrigation from seven in the morning till 10 at night. That means if that field should have been shut off at two in the morning, they weren’t there to turn it off. So we would credit five hours of excess runtime for that particular irrigation event.”

Combining the overages, Lima estimated 7 percent over pumping for the June through August period on the farm. “So the pumps ran unnecessarily for 1,100 hours,” said Massey. “We say that’s a conservative estimate because they probably weren’t able to sustain that 12-hour shift every day. We also didn’t calculate time they spent checking the oil and the radiator and so on.”

Massey said that the son mentioned that his father would at times be out at 2 a.m. shutting off rice field wells to prevent rain from blowing out the levees. “The son was distressed to find out that his Dad’s out there at 2 a.m. driving around by himself,” he said.

“That’s where we get into quality-of-life issues vs. cost savings. How much is it worth to a producer, or his valued employee, to attend a daughter’s or grandson’s ball game or to not have your father driving around in the middle of the night, in the rain?”

At the conference, Massey closed by saying that quality of life benefits may ultimately match or even outweigh savings of fuel, electricity, and labor associated with remote pump shutoff.  He also implored manufacturers to continue to a “laser-like focus” on system simplicity, to improve reliability and user-friendliness, and to keep cellular subscription fees as low as possible as they significantly influenced estimated payback periods in the case study presented at the conference. 

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About the Author(s)

Forrest Laws

Forrest Laws spent 10 years with The Memphis Press-Scimitar before joining Delta Farm Press in 1980. He has written extensively on farm production practices, crop marketing, farm legislation, environmental regulations and alternative energy. He resides in Memphis, Tenn. He served as a missile launch officer in the U.S. Air Force before resuming his career in journalism with The Press-Scimitar.

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