When I began my role as editor of Nebraska Farmer in 2015, one of the first columns I wrote discussed Nebraska ag inventions. None of these is more celebrated than the center pivot, invented by Frank Zybach in the middle of the 20th century. So, I think it’s fitting that as I’m writing my last column as editor of Nebraska Farmer, we’ve recently seen big advancements in the pivot’s role on the farm.
The center pivot is, arguably, one of the first autonomous machines on the farm. For the most part, it’s been used to irrigate crops, although many use pivots for fertigation as well. Over time, the irrigation efficiency of the center pivot has only improved.
Of course, center pivots aren’t limited to crop production. In the early 2010s, Nebraska’s own Jason Gross invented the Pivot Fence, a center pivot-mounted fence, partially autotomizing rotational grazing under a center pivot.
In recent years, we’ve seen the advancement of the center pivot beyond irrigation and fertigation — and used more broadly as an autonomous crop management tool.
The idea of using a center pivot for something other than simply irrigating crops is nothing new. For several years, Tim Shaver, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension nutrient management specialist, has researched using pivot-mounted crop canopy sensors, as well as soil moisture probes and other sensors, to make variable-rate irrigation and variable-rate fertigation prescriptions.
However, center-pivot manufacturers have recently taken it to the next level. Back in early 2019, Valmont and Israel-based Prospera announced a partnership to develop an autonomous crop management system around the center pivot. Fast-forward to late 2020, and Lindsay Corp. announced an autonomous crop management system of its own, the SmartPivot, through a partnership with Microsoft Azure and Taranis.
Think about it. The center pivot is in the field 24/7 and covers most of the field. What machine is better-suited to monitor crops in the field throughout the growing season, alert the grower to any anomalies — whether it’s weeds, disease, insects, nutrient deficiencies, ponding or a plugged nozzle — and eventually, amend certain issues in the field remotely?
Over time, the center pivot’s role in irrigated cropping systems has evolved, and with the advent of telemetry and remote sensing, more and more irrigators rely on technology to dynamically adjust their irrigation management in-season, and remotely make decisions that would otherwise take a trip on an ATV or pickup to the pivot point. I’ve heard more than a couple anecdotes about irrigators shutting off their pivots remotely when a storm rolls in.
As I begin the next chapter of my life covering Iowa agriculture, I’m also reflecting on the changes that have occurred during my time at Nebraska Farmer. In the last couple years, the center pivot has taken on a new role in crop management — going from irrigation and fertigation to imagery and data collection and beyond. The growth that’s happened in the short time I’ve been covering irrigated agriculture has been significant.
We hear about autonomous agriculture often these days, but we’ve just recently begun to witness the growth of one of irrigated agriculture’s most valuable machines into an autonomous crop management system.