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High-tech in the Manitoba potato patch

Relaxing on a pillow is something most potato growers can only daydream about when they have the irrigation system operating during June, July and August. Brent Metcalfe is an exception.


March 18, 2010
By John Dietz

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Relaxing on a pillow is something most potato growers can only daydream
about when they have the irrigation system operating during June, July
and August. Brent Metcalfe is an exception.

wtcm-16-32--wireless
Transmitter, antenna, pressure gauge and solar panel mounted on one of Brent Metcalfe’s pivot irrigation systems. (Photo courtesy of Steve Sager, AESB)


Manager and part-owner of WM Ventures of Treherne, Manitoba, Metcalfe
is responsible for 1000 acres of potatoes. In a 10-mile radius from
home base, the farm has seven centre-pivot irrigation systems drawing
water from three pumps in the Assiniboine River. It also has two
booster stations and about 50 kilometres of water-distribution lines.

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Metcalfe ventured into irrigated potato production in 2003 after a
career in grain production. Technical assistance in planning the
transition to irrigated production was provided by Agriculture and
Agri-Food Canada’s Agri-Environment Services Branch (AESB), formerly
the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA).

The irrigation technology worked fine, but Metcalfe found it hard to
rest. He never knew when the line pressure might drop or a pivot was
wrapping around a tree. He and his crew could not be everywhere all the
time to monitor how the systems were performing.

Metcalfe considered his options, wondering if information technology
could help. That led to discussions in 2007 with Bruce Shewfelt, AESB’s
irrigation and drainage section lead. “Our new mandate in the
Agri-Environment Services Branch is around promoting adoption of
environmental solutions to priority issues like water and climate
change,” Shewfelt says. “We felt Brent would be a good candidate for
early adoption of some high-tech equipment to see how well it works at
field scale. We’d been involved with Brent in other activities and
thought he might like to test-drive some high-tech equipment for
real-time monitoring.”

Shewfelt suggested Weather INnovations Incorporated (WIN) of Chatham,
Ontario, for a solution with respect to integrating remote monitoring
and an automatic alert mechanism. WIN already was working in Central
and Western Canada with remote monitoring systems for cereal, tomato,
beet, fruit and corn growers.

wtcm-16-32--moisture  
Real-time automated monitoring (ADCON) of soil moisture and rainfall. (Photo courtesy of Rob Danford)


 

Custom-built monitoring and control
“The core of our business is modelling information and decision-support
systems,” says Ian Nichols, WIN business manager. “That can be anything
from insect or disease forecasting, to statistical representation of
weather events, to something like we do with Brent, monitoring and
managing infrastructure.”

WIN assembles instrumentation and transmitters into specific networks
suited to individual farm requirements. The core instruments are
low-powered sensors manufactured by several world-leading
manufacturers. Austria’s Adcon Telemetry builds the solar-powered radio
and cellular networks. Adcon, one of several manufacturers of wireless
products, has been perfecting communication systems for more than 10
years and regularly adds new features for the agricultural sector.

For the 2008 season, Metcalfe had sensors installed and networked on
two pivots and two pump stations. He also had remote monitoring for
rainfall and soil moisture. “Brent wanted some way to monitor pressures
in the pipelines, pressures in the pivots, and direction of movement of
the pivots at any given time. We were interested in irrigation
scheduling using soil moisture sensors and rain gauges installed
in-field. Several options existed, including pivot companies and other
telemetry companies. Brent chose to trial the WIN system,” Shewfelt
says.

Once the sensors and transmitters were installed, data could be
transmitted to a specialized computer set up at Metcalfe’s farm office.
It stays on continuously, and with a high-speed Internet connection,
relays the WM Ventures field data to Weather INnovations.

Every piece of data is tagged in the field. At the WIN office, it is
gathered, processed and available online as text, tabular data or a
graphic display.

At home, Metcalfe simply “logs in” to see how the system is performing
in real time. “Technology is continually advancing; many telemetry
options are currently available,” Nichols says. “The important aspect
is to identify the right equipment set to meet the particular needs of
the client, and to ensure there is flexibility. For example, in 2009,
Brent wanted to monitor the 120-volt lines on his pivot in addition to
pressure and direction. It was a simple matter, adding an $80 cable and
sensor, instead of replacing the original system or adding a second
system.”

Metcalfe says, “They give us the opportunity to see it in real time. I
log on to the Internet and see, right now, what’s going on, as opposed
to having to download something that’s history. During the irrigation
season, I log in three, four, five times a day, probably. In two
seasons, we’ve never had a time when I wasn’t able to use it. It’s been
very reliable. And, we have alarms; the system phones me if something
is off the parameters we’ve set. That’s one thing I really wanted.”


Mobile options connect on the road

In the truck, he also can connect to the stream of information using a
mobile broadband card that plugs into his laptop computer, cellphone or
PDA. Most of the farm has fairly reliable and strong cellular service.

One limiting factor, Metcalfe notes, is elevation. Radio telemetry
relies on line-of-sight transmission. One of his pivots is about 150
feet below field level, at the bottom of the Assiniboine River Valley.
He plans to have that pivot, and another one or two, tied into the
system in 2010. “The equipment is the expensive part. The annual
monitoring isn’t too bad at all,” he says, adding that there is also an
option he is still studying, for monitoring soil moisture with the same
system. “We’ve had a couple moisture sensors for the last couple years,
and I’ve kept an eye on them but haven’t done a lot of decision-making
based on the information they were giving me. I think they may play a
part in the decision-making process but I need to be a little more
comfortable with the technology.”

Soil moisture monitoring is another of many applications for the
Internet-based technology. “The neat thing about our service is that we
can add almost any sensor to the remote transmitting units. If you want
a dozen different kinds of soil moisture sensors, from different
manufacturers, we can do that,” says Nichols.

WIN grew out of University of Guelph research projects and was spun off
as an independent company in 2006. It is able to integrate farm sensors
and weather information to produce localized forecast models for
potatoes, sugar beets, tomatoes, blight, spraying conditions and more.

Since the 2003 start of WM Ventures, Shewfelt says several other
companies have begun to offer similar telemetry equipment. “The biggest
hurdle now is the cost, but competition is quite strong. The technology
is changing very quickly. Lots of options are on the way through a
variety of manufacturers, including Canadian companies,” Shewfelt says.

The AESB plans to begin using and studying performance of some of the
other systems available at research centres at Carberry, Manitoba, and
Outlook, Saskatchewan, in 2010, he says. “We’re looking to see what’s
available and do field-scale demonstrations so producers can come to
our sites and see what’s going on. The ultimate purpose is better water
management and sustainable use of our limited water supply,” he says.

Remote monitoring probably has some impact on potato quality for the
farm, Metcalfe says. In the first years, there were nights when a pivot
would stop and not be found until it was checked in the morning. That
is history. “The biggest benefit I see is risk management, not having
pivots stop and stay unattended, being able to monitor from a distance
so that, if something isn’t right, we get called before it breaks
something worse than it already has. Those are the real impetus and
savings. It isn’t necessarily improving quality, but at some point we
may be able to do something about that too with the soil moisture
sensors,” Metcalfe says.

And, he can rest now when his head hits the pillow on a warm summer
night. “In fuel, in time, in downtime from equipment that stopped
overnight and wasn’t found until morning, the savings are in the tens
of thousands of dollars a year, easily,” he says.


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