Finding ways to increase the efficiency of irrigation systems is key for farmers who want to enhance their sustainability.

Recent advancements in irrigation technology are now available to help farmers fine-tune their irrigation practices in many ways. University of Nebraska irrigation specialist Bill Kranz, Ph.D., says these tech tools can play an important role in helping farmers decide when to irrigate and how much water to use.

“There’s lots of potential ways farmers can conserve water, energy and money if they have the right equipment or software,” Kranz says. “The irrigation technology that’s become available in recent years can help farmers manage their water use more precisely and efficiently.”

The following technology can aid farmers in making management decisions and boost irrigation effectiveness.

1. Pivot control panels/telematics

“The ability to wirelessly communicate with and control center pivots is a major advantage,” Kranz says. “Not only can farmers remotely control all major functions, they also receive alerts when problems pop up. This greatly reduces the amount of time, fuel and labor needed to manage irrigation.”

2. Soil-moisture sensors

Sensors that monitor soil-moisture content stand out to Kranz as one of the top tools to help farmers improve irrigation decision making and practices. “Sensors can be set up to automatically start or stop irrigating when soil moisture reaches specified levels. This helps farmers better manage irrigation timing and prevent overwatering.”

3. Smartphones

Having the flexibility to remotely control irrigation systems from anywhere with cell phone reception or an Internet connection keeps farmers informed of their farm’s irrigation needs no matter where they are. Many programs are available for mobile use that allow farmers to review their fields’ soil-moisture content from afar and schedule irrigation as needed.

4. Sprinklers

According to Kranz, advancements in sprinkler systems have improved water-application patterns through the use of multiple streams, sizes and angles. Increasing irrigation uniformity can improve yield and reduce runoff.

5. Yield-modeling tools

Decision-management tools, such as computer-based crop-growth-simulation models, predict potential crop outcomes based on historic climate data, local weather patterns and management practices. This information aids farmers in determining whether additional irrigation is needed to achieve their production goals based on projected yield.

6. Remote-sensing technology

Thermal imaging from unmanned aerial vehicles, airplanes and satellites can provide farmers with valuable intel to monitor irrigated crops. The imaging information can help farmers identify issues, such as clogged nozzles. For instance, maps can show irregular irrigation patterns that would be hard to detect from the ground. This technology allows farmers to pinpoint problem areas and fix them before irreparable yield loss occurs.

7. Variable frequency drive

Kranz says farmers with irrigation pumps powered by electric motors can save up to 30 percent on energy expenses by installing variable-frequency drives. “The drives control the speed and pressure of water pumps,” Kranz explains. “This allows farmers to prevent overpumping and over-pressurizing by setting motors at the speed they need to operate at optimum efficiency.”