Honors Gallery

Sensor Based Variable Rate Irrigation Control Increases Crop Water Productivity

Award: Excellence in Technology Transfer

Year: 2020

Award Type: National

USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) – Plains Area

The technology transfer efforts of the Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and three industry partners have created a smarter autonomous irrigation system with the potential to increase agricultural revenues by billions of dollars. 

The need for irrigation is growing, while the supply of water for irrigation remains limited. Pressurized irrigation systems, mostly of the center pivot variety, are popular in the US and other countries because of their low labor requirements and uniform distribution of water. However, a lack of effective decision support systems for irrigation management means that the crop yield per unit of irrigation water typically is significantly less than could be achieved.  

To solve this problem, the ARS partnered with three companies — Valmont Industries of Valley, Nebraska; Dynamax Inc. of Houston; and Acclima Inc. of Meridian, Idaho — to develop and commercialize a proprietary Irrigation Scheduling Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (ISSCADA) system. (See page 37 for more details about the technologies involved.) 

The technology transferred to the industry partners directly responds to the challenges of increased productivity and more efficient water and nutrient use. Valmont is seeing increasing demand for its variable rate irrigation (VRI) center pivot irrigation systems, including in such distant arenas as China and the dairy regions of New Zealand (to control nutrient pollution).

Retrofitting these with the ISSCADA system could eventually generate manufacturer revenue of more than $5 billion.

The ISSCADA system gives producers the sensor-based decision support system needed to effectively operate both VRI and conventional center pivot systems, and it gives policymakers a means to reduce water consumption and nutrient pollution without reductions in farm productivity and profitability. Globally, both Acclima and Dynamax sell system components that are used in irrigation management, environmental monitoring and management, and research. Implementation of the ISSCADA system will help these companies further expand their sales and become world leaders in providing sensor systems for these purposes. 

In the continental US, there are more than 330,000 center-pivot systems on more than 42 million acres. Retrofitting these with the ISSCADA system could eventually generate manufacturer revenue of more than $5 billion. Using conservative estimates of reduced pumping cost and increased yield, adding ISSCADA to all US center pivots could increase American producers’ revenue by about $3 billion per year.   

Through increasing producer revenue, efficiency and profitability; raising yield per unit of scarce water resources while conserving water and nutrients; and introducing new products in the US and global marketplace, this T2 effort supports the following four of the seven USDA strategic goals:  

• Maximize the ability of American agricultural producers to prosper by feeding and clothing the world. 

• Promote American agricultural products and exports. 

• Facilitate rural prosperity and economic development. 

• Strengthen the stewardship of private lands through technology and research.