May 15, 2017

IRRIGATION INNOVATION: Efficiency Main Driver of Product Advancements

With California setting new records this year with regard to rainfall, one might think that irrigation concerns would be a lower priority item for the time being. But that really never is the case.

Creating efficiencies in one’s irrigation program is always top of mind for the grower…and for the manufacturer, who is constantly trying to stay a step ahead and anticipate the growers’ needs. Whether dealing with innovations with drip, sprinkler or any other irrigation method, reducing grower costs is typically the horse that pulls the wagon.


Drip Irrigation Trends

Chuck Bates, senior product manager for Netafim USA, recently noted that while water use efficiency has always been the number one motivator in irrigation innovation—and is still very important—another factor in the process has moved to the head of the class. “Right now the biggest driver is reduction in labor costs,” he said. “Growers are re-evaluating their approach to irrigation in light of rising labor costs.”

Bates explained that the use of drip irrigation in agriculture has moved well past the experimental stage and is now a mature industry. As such, there are literally decades of experiences to draw upon. For more than a decade, the drip irrigation process that has received the most traction has been the use of thin-wall drip lines multiple times. The Netafim executive said most growers have a well-rehearsed process of laying the drip line, retrieving it at the end of the season, rolling it up and then laying it again for the next crop. A typical drip line will last seven to 10 uses, he estimated, with some lines lasting even longer.

“But labor costs have skyrocketed and there is so much labor involved in retrieving the tape, fixing the leaks and re-rolling it up that it has become cost-prohibitive.”

Instead Netafim has developed a single-use tape that Bates said makes more sense economically for most row crop growers. “Labor costs have mushroomed with minimum wage and overtime costs continuing to go up,” he said.

The single-use tape is a bit cheaper because it is made of thinner material, but Bates said the more important advantages are in labor cost reduction, disease prevention and the efficiency of the system itself. He noted that even though the multi-use tapes are thicker and are repaired after every use, there still is a drop in efficiency each time they are retrieved and re-installed. There is also the risk of spreading pathogens as laborers move through the field retrieving the tape and laying it back down at a later date.

But he said it is the labor costs that appear to be the biggest driver. When retrieving a tape that is going to be reused, the retrieval system has to slow down to minimize rips and tears in the drip line. Even so the entire line has to be inspected and repairs made before it is rolled up and stored for future use. With a single-use tape, Bates said it is retrieved from the field very quickly and then recycled. The next tape comes from the manufacturer ready to install with minimal issues.

There was a time when the cost of the tape might have justified the expense of reusing it. Bates said that is no longer the case in most situations.

Netafim first piloted the single-use tape in June and July of 2016. It performed so well and made such economic sense that they rolled it out commercially less than two months later. Since then thousands of acres have been planted with the single-use tape providing crops with their water needs. Bates said the company was first to market with its single-use drip line, but admitted that competitors have followed suit. He added, “We have a robust solution that drills down into the economics so that a grower can see the savings.”

He added that the irrigation system also includes the firm’s proprietary “FlexNet flexible piping solution,” which is an end of the row water delivery system designed specifically for drip irrigation use. Typically, Bates said growers have used a water discharge system adapted from other irrigation uses. He said Netafim’s solution for drip systems is this flexible pipe made out of a lighter material that lays flat and is much easier to handle in the field. He said the typical six-inch Natafim pipe weighs 79 pounds compared to 300 pounds for a similar length of the traditional pipes.

In addition, he said this pipe has been designed for drip lines and does not need to be retro-fitted, which is a potential source of leaks. And he noted there are also labor savings associated with the use of this system.


Solid-Set Sprinklers Adding Efficiencies

Automation is in its early stages for solid-set irrigation systems, but it promises huge advantages in the future, according to John Rowley, Rotator product line manager for Nelson Irrigation. The veteran water expert said automating an irrigation system offers opportunities for water efficiency, labor savings and, most importantly, improved crop production.

He explained that most sprinkler irrigation systems, which is the area of focus and expertise for Nelson Irrigation, rely heavily on the human element. Turning valves on and off is a time-consuming project, and scheduling that work can be problematic. While the plants needs are obviously taken into consideration, the ability to schedule the work is a big factor.

As systems are automated, Rowley said applying “exactly the right amount of water at exactly the right time” opens the door to labor savings, decreased water use and optimum crop production.

Nelson does have products on the market that can move a grower in this direction. And he said growers appear primed to up their irrigation systems. In fact, in the last year, Nelson representatives have noticed an increased use in check valves and regulators. These additions to a sprinkler system allow a grower to more precisely regulate water flow adjusting it for crop and weather conditions. Without getting too technical, Rowley said a specific pressure can be dialed in during germination when droplet pattern size can optimize the process, while a different pressure can be utilized as the crop grows. Often these check valves and regulators are combined with closed systems that result in huge water savings.

Rowley said the willingness to invest in this additional equipment proves that growers are interested in taking the next step to improve the delivery of water to the crops. He believes a big step toward automation is on the horizon. Already, Nelson has developed equipment that can automate the turning off and on of valves. Typically, there is a valve for every acre or two of production. On 100 acres that means 50-100 valves. It can take two-three minutes per valve to turn it off and on and then there is the additional travel time between the valves. Rowley said during germination process in the heat of the summer in some of California’s hottest areas, these valves have to be turned on and off several times a day. Obviously automation would be a big labor saver.

But Rowley is even more excited about the improved crop production that can be associated with increased water use efficiency. More precise watering, he says will produce better crops at a lower cost. Less water will be used and plants will thrive when the water can be delivered at exactly the right time and not be dependent on an irrigator moving through the fields or orchards and manually opening or shutting valves as he gets to each location. “When you have complete control over the water you deliver and can precisely determine the water depth you want for each plant that opens up a whole new area of efficiency. There is no question that when you can manage soil moisture better, you improve production.”

While Rowley believes irrigation automation is only in its infant stages, he expects great progress in a relatively short time frame.

Like much else in agriculture, necessity is the mother of invention. Increasing labor costs just may be the driver needed to move irrigation systems to the next level of efficiency.