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WEB EXCLUSIVE: Precision weather technology can save time, costs

Gone are the days when weather forecasting meant predicting the weather. These days, it’s about so much more: meteorologists can calculate temperature and relative humidity, soil temperature, wind speed and direction, solar radiation, rainfall and lightning risk right at the farm level – or the field level, if you prefer.

“Weather costs a lot of money to a farmer in a given year,” says Guy Ash, chief meteorologist and chief operating officer of Precision Weather Solutions, a Winnipeg-based company. “Weather technology integrates into every aspect of what goes on on the farm. If I can improve my management based on very localized weather tools, those translate into savings, or increased yield and quality.”

Ash has collaborated with Masasah Mkhabela, a research associate at the University of Manitoba’s Department of Soil Science, on a project evaluating thermal time models for forecasting spring wheat development.

“Thermal time refers to the temperature time for the development of a particular crop. We used a number of thermal indexes to look at how well they performed in spring wheat field trials,” says Ash. “There are a host of thermal models, which are typically called ‘growth stage models’ – the growth stage of the crop is what you’re trying to predict.”

The team used site data to evaluate how accurate each model was at predicting crop development.

Ultimately, the growing-degree-day base-temperature zero model (GDD) performed best in the study, over other, more complex models. This research will contribute to the development of ever-more precise tools for forecasting.

Why does this matter in the field? The concept of growth stages is important for producers to know, Ash explains, because crop stage dictates their management scheme for fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation.

Ash says public weather services are no longer adequate to meet the needs of large-scale farming operations, which can spread over many kilometers and land types. Ash says the government’s job, when it comes to weather, is to provide watches and alerts for extreme weather events. But this doesn’t help farm-level management.

“The biggest issue in Canada has been the lack of information at a field level to make management decisions. If you’re relying on data from a few kilometres away that doesn’t really help you,” he says.

Precision Weather Solutions works with producers to perform climatological and meteorological data processing on their farms, turning all of that data into information they can use to schedule farm management tasks. “Whether it’s disease pressure or development of the crop, we’re providing technology and solutions that allows you to do that at a much finer resolution than what’s been available in the past,” he says.

Personalized weather data
In practical terms, what this means is that producers can hire companies like Precision Weather Solutions to install (sometimes multiple) weather stations on the farm – at $2,500 to $3,500 each, depending on the package. Data from the station is immediately available to the farmer, but can also be shared with agronomists.

Farmers Edge, the precision agriculture and independent data management firm that patented Variable Rate (VR) Technology, also offers “personalized weather data” to individual growers, as part of its FarmCommand integrated farm management platform.

“A key principle at Farmers Edge is our focus on field-centric data – the right data to drive precision agriculture going forward, and the weather component is pretty critical to that,” says Patrick Crampton, chief operating officer at Farmers Edge.

In fall 2015, Farmers Edge announced a partnership with The Weather Company (TWC), an IBM business and the world’s largest weather company, which provides Farmers Edge forecasts. “By combining TWC's Forecasts on Demand (FoD) weather forecasting engine with Farmers Edge on-farm weather stations, customers can access hyper local forecasts including 48-hour hourly forecasts and 10 days of daily forecasts, as well as historical weather data to support decisions surrounding their field operations,” says Crampton.

According to Farmers Edge, there is typically a nearly 48 per cent reduction in accuracy of weather stations when they are 20 kilometres away.

“For our Smart Solution services we deploy an advanced weather station on every 2,500 acres of a client’s farm. That provides the density of the weather network to capture critical data to input into the models.”

The FarmCommand platform also performs “passive data collection” via CanPlug telematics installed on field equipment (sprayers, combines, etc.) – including fuel usage, speed, and sometimes live yield data.

The Smart Solution complete data package comes to farmers at the cost of $1.95 per acre on a whole farm basis, says Crampton – available at the touch of a smartphone screen.

The most pressing question, as ever, comes back to actual value on the farm: is it worth it?

Crampton says it is. “Every one of our customers will have one or more stations in 10 years,” he says. “I believe when you look at the integration opportunities of soil information, rainfall modeling, etcetera, the ability to get into predictive yield products is only going to increase the value of the weather station on your farm.”

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