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Sunbelt Expo looks to improve irrigation efficiency, technologySunbelt Expo looks to improve irrigation efficiency, technology

• The 600-acre research farm — a feature of the Sunbelt Expo’s summer field day and the main show in October — has a reputation for being a reliable proving ground for new crop hybrids and various biotechnology and precision ag products and methods. Recent improvements in irrigation capabilities will only enhance that reputation, says Expo Farm Manager Michael Chafin.

Paul L. Hollis

October 8, 2012

6 Min Read
<p> SUNBELT EXPO FARM Manager Michael Chafin is shown with a cotton/cucurbit field trial from this past spring. Chafin says updated irrigation capabilities are enhancing research results at the farm in Moultrie, Ga.</p>

Unbiased agricultural research depends on removing all variables in a given situation, including irrigation.

That’s why modern, properly functioning irrigation systems are become so important to farms such as the one at the Sunbelt Agricultural Expo in Moultrie, Ga.

With the help of companies like Reinke Manufacturing, the Expo’s non-profit Darrell Williams Research Farm has embarked on a multi-year project to adopt new irrigation technologies and discover more efficient ways of using water.

The 600-acre research farm — a feature of the Expo’s summer field day and the main show in October — has a reputation for being a reliable proving ground for new crop hybrids and various biotechnology and precision ag products and methods. Recent improvements in irrigation capabilities will only enhance that reputation, says Expo Farm Manager Michael Chafin.

In southwest Georgia, where the Expo site is located, irrigation has expanded significantly, from about 25 percent of all cropland 20 years ago to anywhere from 55 to 60 percent today. So for the Expo to mirror what area growers are doing, irrigation is a must, and proper, updated irrigation is even better.

The irrigation upgrades made by the Expo will help insure that research is measuring the intended factors, and that the results are not being impacted by spotty irrigation, says Chafin.

In other words, irrigation will be removed as a variable in research plots. An improved cotton, soybean, corn or peanut variety will stand on its own merits and not be influenced by water intake or the lack thereof.

“We want to help farmers in all ways to be as efficient as possible,” says Mike Mills, Reinke territory manage for the Southeast.

“When irrigation is reliable, the university researchers and seed development companies can better gauge the results of studies at the farm. It takes irrigation out as a factor because the researcher knows that irrigation irregularity isn’t impacting the results,” he says.

For the past two years, Reinke has worked to upgrade the Expo’s irrigation capabilities. Last year, the company presented a new eight-tower center pivot irrigation system to the research farm. This year, the company donated a new high-efficiency irrigation system. Reinke also donated equipment in 2004 and 2007 to help expand irrigation at the Expo Farm.

Shows latest technology

In addition to taking the irrigation variable our of research projects, updated systems and equipment also give farmers an idea of the latest technology that’s available to them.

The Expo’s newest center pivot replaces an older three-tower model currently located on the farm and will provide better reliability, water application uniformity, and efficiency, says Chafin.

It features the Reinke RPM Touch Screen Panel technology and will integrate with the existing computer-based telemetry system and Internet-based remote control package.

“This is a Windows-based operating system, running in a Windows CE environment,” says Mills.

“By using the Windows system, we can program the center pivot control panel to do many things. We monitor the operation of the center pivot, and we log and record every activity that occurs. We can see historical operation and when things happen and use it for trouble-shooting as well as for planning and water management.”

The center pivot control panel also is connected to the End-of-System GPS, says Mills. “It monitors the machine’s location in the field. We can program the computer panel to automatically adjust operations on the machine by location in the field. We can speed it up, slow it down, and start or stop any ancillary devices that might be connected such as fertilizer pumps.”

Water application, he says, can be controlled by location based on crop and soil type. Water also can be shut off in non-crop areas.

“At the Expo, we have linked all of the Reinke center pivots with the electric pumping unit that supplies water to the research farm. Anytime that pivot starts, it automatically starts the pump, which eliminates the need for the farm manager to start the pump, bring up the pressure, and then go start the pivot,” says Mills.

A pressure monitor on the pivot determines when the pivot begins to move. “Should that pivot stop for any reason, it will automatically stop the well. By doing that, we’ve eliminated the risk of a parked pivot that will just sit in the field and flood until someone notices the pivot isn’t moving.”

Also, the Expo farm manager’s office is equipped with a PC and software package that monitors all of the center pivots.

“Every screen in the field is also visible from the PC in the manager’s office. We can change programming, stop machines, start machines, look at historical applications. It eliminates the need for the grower to go from field to field and manually input data.

“That telemetry system goes back and forth. And, Reinke can trouble-shoot a system from our service center in Nebraska,” says Mills.

On-site weather monitor

In addition the center pivot has an on-site weather monitor that helps to determine water requirements for each crop.

“It’s a matter of convenience and cost-savings. In operations where there might be hundreds of miles between machines, this system can result in significant water and fuel savings, as well as a reduction in management overhead,” says Mills.

That computer in the farm manager’s office is linked through the Internet to a mobile website that is viewable through a smartphone.

“From that smartphone, you can do many operations, including stopping and starting the machine and getting status information. While the farmer is doing in-field operations around the machine, such as tillage, he can control the center pivot.

“Whenever those pivots have a change in status, the telemetry system sends the grower a text message, eliminating a significant amount of time and effort.”

The Expo farm also has been fitted this year with a sub-surface drip irrigation project installed by B.B. Hobbs Company of Darlington, S.C. Will Young, a representative of Hobbs, says the system consists of one tape watering two rows of plants and buried about 8 inches deep.

The expected life of the tape is about 10 years, says Young.

“Filtration is very important in these systems. You’ve got to have filtration, whether you’re watering from a well or a pond. If it’s a pond or surface water, you’ve got to have even more sophisticated filtration.”

The system installed at the Expo site includes a water meter that monitors the system and allows researchers to communicate with the controller.

“We also have a fertilizer meter that puts out the material proportionately. We’ve installed several hundred acres around the Southeast, and we’re definitely outperforming dryland acreage. Going up against center pivots, we’re at least matching yields, and we’re doing it with less water,” says Young.

With a drip irrigation system, a grower typically sees a reduction in water use of at least 30 percent, he says, and in some cases, water use is reduced by 40 to 50 percent, depending on the situation.

“It’s more costly than center pivots in certain fields,” says Young. “In an odd-shaped field, it might be a better fit than a center pivot. Materials will be about $700 to $1,200 per acre. But if all you do is to switch from a center pivot to a drip, you won’t see a big jump in yield until you start fully utilizing fertigation.”

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About the Author(s)

Paul L. Hollis

Auburn University College of Agriculture

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