Farmer turning on irrigation system. Image credit: DedovStock/shutterstock.com
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Irrigation is a primary aspect of agriculture and has been employed by humans for thousands of years. Innovative technology is allowing farmers to enhance this practice by using automation to boost efficiency.

Historically, irrigation has been vital for increasing productivity, compensating for drought and water scarcity, and increasing the area of cultivable land.

Technological innovations have given rise to more efficient means of irrigation, such as automatic systems, which allow the flow of water to start, stop or be redirected, without the need for manual interference – resulting in many benefits for farmers and other landowners.

Automation in an irrigation system can occur at several points and can be used to start and stop irrigation through channels (the tracts through which water flows across an irrigation network), to start and stop the pumps involved in transporting the water, and to cut off and redirect water from one area to another.

With an automated system in place, these changes occur without any direct manual effort, but farmers will need to spend time preparing the system at the start of irrigation and maintaining the various components so that operation occurs consistently.

Benefits of automatic irrigation

By automating irrigation functions, irrigators can not only reduce the necessary labour to run the system but can increase system efficiency by lowering the risk of delays or miscalculations. Automatic systems can ensure timely irrigation, providing water precisely when, and as much is, needed.

Intelligently designed systems can provide more accurate water cut-off than manual checking and can also deliver savings by reducing the need for vehicles to check and maintain irrigation across a property.

Automatic irrigation saves time, and therefore, money. Depending on the number of pumps a farm owner has and the hours of operation, significant savings can also be made on water and power bills.

Disadvantages of automatic irrigation

Automatic systems are more costly to purchase, install and maintain than traditional systems and it is up to individual irrigators to determine whether an automatic set up will provide enough savings in the long term to be worth the investment.

While automatic irrigation is generally more consistent than its manual alternative, that does not necessarily equate to reliability. Improperly installed systems can lead to major errors, so care must be taken when setting up schedules and sensors.

Installing automatic irrigation

Before making the decision to install automated irrigation systems, it is recommended that farmers construct a comprehensive property map, including details on soil type fencing, areas of vegetation and vegetation type, land classes and water supply.

An exhaustive farm plan with details on land characteristics can better equip farmers with the knowledge required
to incorporate automation features early in the farm planning process.

When planning to install an automated system, farmers must consider the different types of automation available and determine which system will suit the irrigation layout for their property.

There is a variety of systems to choose from, each with different capabilities in terms of their portability, installation and hardware costs and the backups and software that are required to support and maintain them. As such, as well as having an in-depth understanding of their property and irrigation needs, farmers should also clearly determine their budget when selecting a suitable system.

Devices for automatic irrigation systems

There are a variety of devices used to create an automated irrigation system. Irrigators will need to carefully consider which device, or combination of devices, works best for their operation.

Some automation devices include:

Pneumatic sensor system

A pneumatic system is a permanent installation that is activated by a sensor located at a specific height, or cut-
off point, in a channel. Upon reaching the sensor, the water pressurises the air, which is then directed to a mechanism that activates opening and closing.

Electronic sensor system

This system works similarly to its pneumatic counterpart but relies on a digital sensor to detect when water has reached the cut-off point. When the sensor encounters water, it transmits radio signals to the devices at the outlets to stop the flow of water. It can then send a radio message to a receiver to let the farmer or irrigator know that water has stopped flowing.

Timer system

A timer system uses electronic clocks to activate the opening and closing of the irrigation structures. Timer systems tend to be easily movable and adaptable, allowing multiple units to be used and moved around the whole property.

Timer/sensor hybrid

This system is a combination of timer and sensor systems, and, like a timer, uses an electronic gadget to activate the opening and closing irrigation structures but does so in concert with sensors (typically electronic) to allow for more complex irrigation schedules.

Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA)

Automation systems that use SCADA facilitate complex scheduling and control of the irrigation network via a radio link. This type of system requires a computer and software package to function. When the control modules in the paddocks receive signals from the computer, they can alter water flow by opening and closing outlets. Unlike other systems, SCADA-based systems are also able to start and stop pumps and motors, further reducing the labour required to operate the irrigation system.

The importance of irrigation

Water is a limited resource, with agriculture accounting for approximately 70 per cent of global water usage. As new technologies become available to the industry, it is critically important to utilise them to help manage, regulate and optimise water usage, so that as little water as possible is wasted.

Whatever type of automatic irrigation system farmers and irrigators choose, time and money will always need to be invested in the initial setup and in the ongoing maintenance to ensure the system works properly and keeps running efficiently.

Properly installed and maintained systems can help provide significant returns on investment, with greater efficiency resulting in lower water and power bills, and reduced labour requirements alongside the higher yields brought about by quality irrigation.

Information sourced from Agriculture Victoria. For more information, go to https://agriculture.vic.gov.au/

Featured image: DedovStock/shutterstock.com

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