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On-farm weather stations can help guide decisions

New systems take weather watching to a whole new level.


October 18, 2008
By Bruce Barker

New systems take weather watching to a whole new level.

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The stations can be located up to half a mile away from the computer.
Photo courtesy of Canadian Wheat Board 
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The WeatherBug weather station will help guide field activities.


There is an old farmer weather station that gets a lot of laughs. The station is a rock hanging from a string. If the rock is wet, it is raining. If the rock is moving, it is windy. If there is ice on it, the temperature is below zero. And if the rock is blowing straight sideways, it is time to head for the basement shelter. The new weather stations, though, give farmers more than just a laugh at the coffee shop.

One of the new, high-tech weather stations is from the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB). The station measures wind speed and direction, humidity, precipitation, temperature, baro-metric pressure and dew point, plus providing hourly forecasts. But the CWB program is much more than a simple on-farm weather station. It is incor-porated into an on-line weather network that connects with other stations across the prairies. The CWB WeatherBug system was launched in August 2007.

The project was conceived and initiated by the CWB’s weather and crop surveillance department as a benefit to western Canadian farmers. Enabled by WeatherBug’s proprietary networking technology and operational capabilities, the network in Canada will deliver accurate weather information for prairie farmers and crop forecasters.

“We’re trying to build a network where farmers can get good, solid information about the weather in their local area,” explains Guy Ash, CWB weather network program manager, based in Winnipeg. “Producers can use their on-farm weather station and also tap into the network to see what is happening 20 or 30 kilometres away, where they also might have farmland, or to monitor approaching weather systems.” The CWB also uses the improved information to feed into its grain marketing strategies.

The WeatherBug system is a real-time network. Farmers can purchase their own station at a base price of approximately $900, with more sophisticated commercial models starting at $5250. The on-farm model is a wireless system that is solar powered and connects to high-speed internet via a personal computer. The more sophisticated stations can include soil temperature and soil moisture probes, and UV and solar sensors.

The weather stations are generally located in a field, away from the climate effects of a farmyard. Using wireless repeaters, the stations can be located as far as half a mile from the computer console. This on-farm station then becomes part of the network across the prairies. An annual subscriber fee of $100 is charged to be part of the network.

Subscribers have access to current and historical data from all other networked stations, and the ability to analyze this information using charts and graphs that will soon be available through an on-line Weather Centre at www.cwb.ca. In future, they will be able to also access WeatherBug weather data via a cell phone or other hand-held wireless device. Farmers do not have to be part of the network and their station will still provide real-time data for their own farm.

Pioneer Grain is installing weather stations at its agricultural business centres across western Canada. Once the network is installed, farmers will be able to access accurate local weather information through the Pioneer Grain web site.

Within the next three years, WeatherBug will work with the CWB, Pioneer Grain and other partners to connect more than 600 weather stations on farms, schools and businesses across western Canada. Parkland Agri Services, another significant project partner, will set up 20 stations at its Alberta locations.

The network is expected to grow to include more than 1000 weather stations. By December 2007, approximately 140 stations had been installed already, with 300 installation orders in place.


What to do with the information?

Aside from being a glamorous rain gauge, what can farmers do with the weather data collected? John Mayko, senior agronomy specialist with the Canola Council of Canada at Mundare, Alberta, says weather information can be valuable in planning many farm activities. For example, disease prediction models, such as the sclerotinia disease assessment model, use historical and current weather conditions to guide fungicide spray applications. He says being able to track humidity levels with weather stations is especially valuable.

“The role of humidity was quite evident in 2007 with sclerotinia infestations. Moisture conditions were very good, but then the heat hit in early July. People thought that with the 30 degree C weather, they did not need to spray and many made the decision not to spray. In reality though, humidity played a very big role, especially down in the crop canopy where the humidity was high. The disease was a lot worse than many people expected it to be,” explains Mayko.

At the CWB, Ash says the WeatherBug system will help guide farm management decisions. He says real-time weather information can be extremely valuable in planning a host of farm operations. These include assessing live wind conditions (speed/direction) for spraying herbicides, insecticides and fungicides, applying a herbicide when temperature, humidity and rainfall conditions assure best results, documenting wind for spray drift complaints, forecasting diseases (e.g. fusarium in wheat), predicting crop or insect stages to ensure timely treatments, predicting cereal yields and harvest quality attributes, and record management – documenting local weather conditions. “It’s another tool in the toolbox for farmers to use,” says Ash.

The CWB is looking at developing a number of models to help guide farm management decisions, such as insect or weed spraying. Eventually, those
decision models will become part of the WeatherBug network.

Another benefit of the network is that it will allow short-term forecasting for local weather systems. For example, a farmer could track the movement of a local thunderstorm on the network as it approaches his farm. This could help guide everything from seeding to spraying to harvesting.

“A weather station definitely provides an advantage for producers making local decisions. If you’re close to an Environment Canada station, it might not be a big deal, but if you don’t have accurate weather information close at hand, an on-farm station can make a big difference in planning farm activities,” says Mayko.