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How AI and machine learning affect irrigators

Irrigators discuss how technology could change at the annual Irrigation Show and Education Week.

Curt Arens

December 22, 2023

3 Min Read
Hundreds of irrigators and irrigation industry professionals wait for the exhibit hall doors to open at the annual Irrigation Show and Education Week
CAN’T WAIT: Hundreds of irrigators and irrigation industry professionals wait for the exhibit hall doors to open at the annual Irrigation Show and Education Week, held this past November in the convention center in San Antonio. Curt Arens

It is really in its infancy. In the irrigation industry, artificial intelligence and machine learning are just now scratching the surface of thousands of potential applications down the road, with only one goal in mind — to optimize water-use efficiency. In other words, to save water.

It’s all about the water, and what that means to food security. At an industry panel discussion at the annual Irrigation Show and Education Week hosted by the Irrigation Association in November in San Antonio, IA President Randy Wood said, “The [irrigation] industry is committed to offering solutions to improve food security, caring for every drop of water, advocating and cultivating a national workforce, and providing services to help ensure that water is available for irrigation for future generations.”

Wood, who is president and CEO of Lindsay Corp. based in Omaha, Neb., added, “This requires our collective efforts and talents toward a common goal, that is through collaboration, elevating the value of wise use of water, ensuring a thriving and growing industry and innovating to protect natural resources.”

From the experts

The panel discussion, moderated by IA CEO Natasha Rankin, included Julie Bushell, vice president of Paige Electric, based in Columbus, Neb.; and Mike Haldane, director of commercial operations for Calsense, based in Carlsbad, Calif.

“We are just scratching the surface of what is possible,” Haldane said. “We are using AI now for technology or marketing content, tech manuals for instance, so we are able to use AI to optimize the process, draft content that is AI-written in a way that is well structured, using the proper grammar and punctuation. It can give us a first draft of content.”

From a business standpoint, he said that AI is also used in learning management systems, to educate employees on HR topics or cybersecurity.

Speeding the processes and bringing institutional memory into play are important uses for AI, Bushell said.

“It is huge for irrigation and for everyone, offering the ability for the next generation of managers and irrigators to capture the knowledge of water people who have been in the industry for the past 30 or 40 years,” she said. “We will need those tools to be successful.”

Down the road

In the future, Haldane said that he believes AI and machine learning could be used to predict maintenance issues with irrigation equipment, perhaps long before it actually breaks down.

“Maybe we can glean information from a solenoid that is slowing down or a valve that is not closing all the way,” he explained. “If we get that information, we can be more proactive and maybe predict a maintenance issue two months before it happens.”

He also said that in the supply chain, AI can offer logistical ways to optimize the entire system, so supplies are available when there is demand.

For Bushell, as an example, AI can help to look at models of how groundwater pumping is affecting surface water, and similar issues.

“I look at AI as just another set of tools to make what we do more efficient and more effective,” Haldane said. “There are countless ways it can make a big difference in the world over time. It is not a replacement for what we do today, but a complement to help us reach our goals, which is to save water, to optimize the use of water.”

Learn more about the Irrigation Show and Education Week at irrigation.org.

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Irrigation

About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

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