Top Crop Manager

Quick, convenient control of irrigation pivots

It’s kind of like going from a horse and buggy to a car. Once you have it, you’d never go back.”

May 3, 2010  By Carolyn King

It’s kind of like going from a horse and buggy to a car. Once you have it, you’d never go back.”

Abram Martens at Cor Van Raay Farms remotely controls 89 pivots with the Valley CAMS BaseStation. (Photo courtesy of Valley Irrigation)


That is how Abram Martens describes the Valley CAMS BaseStation to remotely control irrigation pivots.

Martens is the irrigation manager at Cor Van Raay Farms near Lethbridge, Alberta. This operation currently has 89 pivots that irrigate about 11,800 acres to grow corn for silage, barley for silage and barley for grain, wheat and canola. The BaseStation system allows Martens to monitor and control every pivot from his office computer.

Van Raay Farms has had the BaseStation system for 13 years; it was one of the first farms in the area to get one of these pivot control systems.

Martens says using BaseStation is pretty straightforward. “A lot of the functions are just mirrored to what the controls are at the pivot and what you would normally be used to. There are more advanced functions you can do with BaseStation that are more complex, but I would say overall it’s as easy as running the irrigation system itself.”

He explains, “All we’re really doing is using a two-way radio system to link with our irrigation systems. From a central station, we link to each of our irrigation systems and we are able to operate any one of those irrigation systems the same as if we were at the control panel on the pivot.”

One of the things Martens likes best about BaseStation is the on-screen, real-time map of the farm’s entire irrigation system that displays the status of each pivot. “It gives us a bird’s-eye view of the whole system. It calls out to each irrigation system and asks it how it’s doing, and if there’s a problem, it sends an alarm to us. All that information is displayed on one single map. You can just take a quick look and see how you’re doing. Then from there we’re able to produce some reports and other neat stuff.”

Options for reports include things like year-to-year comparisons of pivot performance.

Martens says the system saves time and increases efficiency. “Let’s say you’re irrigating with 70 pivots. If you have to go check all those pivots, physically run out there and take a look at each system to get an idea of what’s going on with it, it would take you hours. I go to the computer first thing in the morning and I can see exactly what’s going on within seconds.

“It makes it easier to manage manpower. If we’re having some issues in a certain area, I can send employees to that area to get that job done. Sometimes we’ll have a set of irrigation systems that are all running off of one pump site and if they are all shut down, then I’m able to see that it’s a pressure problem, and I can send people right out to the pump site.”

Along with Valley, other irrigation equipment manufacturers have developed similar sorts of systems including OnTrac by Reinke, FieldNET by Lindsay/Zimmatic, and Pivot Point by AgSense. These systems allow a farmer to control multiple pivots from a computer, smartphone or other device. Capabilities include monitoring where the pivots are and what they are doing, stopping and starting them, controlling their speed and direction, receiving alarms, and so on. And new and improved options are coming along every year. “All of the different manufacturers have them and they are all good. For instance, the Zimmatic FieldNet system is a web-based system that is completely compatible with any pivot. Reinke’s OnTrac uses a satellite system and it also is compatible with any pivot,” says Ted Harms, soil and water specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Regional Development (AARD) at Brooks.

Pivot Point is a GPS-driven system that is compatible with any brand of pivot.

Harms says only a handful of Alberta irrigators are using these systems so far. “The perception is oftentimes that you have to be a big operation to use these systems. But that’s a false perception.”

Relatively quick return on investment
Harms believes these pivot control systems can pay for themselves pretty quickly. “There’s definitely a time savings and a fuel savings because you don’t have to drive out to all the different pivots and go to the middle and turn them on, and all of that,” he says. “Whether you’re running 100 pivots or 500 pivots or five pivots, it’s a very valuable tool especially if your pivots are a distance away from your home site. A lot of irrigators in the Taber area rent potato land, and sometimes it’s a distance from their own place. It’s fairly easy to set up the system on a pivot. For, let’s say, $500 you can instrument that pivot, even if it’s not yours, and I guarantee that would save you the money during the season running out there and making sure that it’s doing what you want it to do.”

In terms of maintenance of the BaseStation system, Martens says, “I would say it’s no different than anything else that is mechanical and electrical. We have had a bit of trouble with it but we’ve had very good support. It’s mostly been issues with the radios, but in about the last five years, Valley has come a long way with the radios that they are using. The speed of communication is a lot faster and maintenance issues are a lot better.”

For anyone who is considering getting one of these pivot control systems, Martens says, “I would say that they’ll be quite surprised at how much they’ll start to rely on it. I would encourage them to really think about all the trips they make out to the field, and realize that many of those trips probably could have been dealt with from their desk in a matter of seconds instead of going out to the field and having to drive through the mud and get into the pivot to do whatever needed to be done. You can definitely come very close to cutting the number of trips out to the field in half.”

He adds, “It’s going to cost a little bit of money to get the system, but it’s going to pay for itself in trips to the field. And if you’re going to get it, I would put it on every machine that you have. At the beginning we tried putting it on most of our machines and we only had a few that we didn’t put it on. Looking back, I would say, just get the job done. You’re not going to regret it; it gives you much better control of everything.”

Pivot control + irrigation management = even more savings
“The pivot control technology controls pivots. It doesn’t make you a
better irrigator. I’m a strong advocate of these systems, but they
don’t help you know when to irrigate and how much water to put on,”
says Ted Harms of Alberta Agriculture and Regional Development (AARD).
That is where AARD’s Alberta Irrigation Management Model (AIMM) comes
in. This software package assists producers with their irrigation
scheduling decisions. It can be downloaded for free from AARD’s website
Harms says that the AIMM software is designed “so that it marries
really nicely with pivot control technology. You can take the file that
the pivot control system gives you and put it directly into our
irrigation management software. That gives you the complete package,
when you use the pivot control system and irrigation management system
together, you can save energy and save water, along with the time and
fuel savings from the pivot control system.”
At Cor Van Raay Farms, they use the AIMM software. Martens says that
it’s been a bit of a learning curve to use AIMM, but it provides a lot
of valuable information. “I think using the CAMS BaseStation system and
the AIMM system together has really helped us to be able to understand
our irrigation better and I think we’re able to make better decisions
because of it.”
“If you’re irrigating without any type of management strategy, it’s
just a guessing game,” notes Martens. “I’m sure there are other ways of
doing it, but AIMM is very convenient for us to be able to centralize
all of that information and link it to the CAMS software to show us
what fields we have been irrigating and what fields require irrigating.
It gives us a central place to go to make irrigation decisions with
that bird’s-eye view to see where we’re at.” 


Stories continue below