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This is how Dutch growers manage irrigation

The Dutch are renown for their expertise on water management based on ages of battling seas and rivers. So how do Dutch growers manage their irrigation and what are the latest trends on this? And what sensors do they use to trigger their irrigation systems?

The 2018 growing season was exceptionally dry throughout Europe and throughout other continents as well. Many growers have therefore assured themselves of (additional) irrigation capacity for this year’s growing season and have invested in irrigation systems. Every manufacturer we approached says that they can hardly keep up with demand.

Additional capacity wanted

The Dutch distributor of Ferbo and Irrimec systems says that 70% of purchases of new equipment is made by growers who want additional irrigation capacity. Also other brands like Bauer, Faber, Irrifrance and Perrot noticed an increased need for more capacity. Most commonly used are hose reel systems with a 125 and 140 mm hose diameter.

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Most Dutch growers (still) use hose reel systems because of their easiness to use and capacity although they do realise that these are not ideal from the perspective of water utilisation. - Photo: Peter Roek
Most Dutch growers (still) use hose reel systems because of their easiness to use and capacity although they do realise that these are not ideal from the perspective of water utilisation. - Photo: Peter Roek

The distributor of Perrot and Greenfield hose reel systems says that 125 mm is mostly sufficient as a bigger hose also means more intense ‘rain showers’ from the sprinklers. Hose lengths tend to limit to 500 meters (140 mm hose) up to 700 meters (125 mm hose) because of transport dimensions and limitations.

Increased interest for irrigation booms

Although hose reels are most commonly used by Dutch growers, they do realise that these are not ideal from the perspective of water utilisation. This has led to an increased interest for irrigation booms although these are only account for a very small percentage of sales and market shares. Growers however do see the benefits of irrigation booms such as a lower pressure (about half of the hose reel systems), lower energy consumption and thus increased pump capacity, a better distribution and less sensitive to wind.

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Raindancer solar panel with gps-antenna for gps control of hose reel systems priced at €1,200. Including sector irrigation it costs €3,500. - Photo: Mark Pasveer
Raindancer solar panel with gps-antenna for gps control of hose reel systems priced at €1,200. Including sector irrigation it costs €3,500. - Photo: Mark Pasveer

The intensity of the water however is higher than that of hose reel systems, but for advancing germination, nothing beats a 10 mm dose from irrigation booms. It’s mostly the practical drawbacks that prevent these systems from increased market penetration. These include relocation of the spray booms en logistical challenges of large booms.

Most fields not suitable for pivots

Central and linear pivots are even less popular in the Netherlands because of the fact that most fields simply aren’t suitable for pivots. Nonetheless, there’s some systems from Bauer and Lindsay in use. Mainly because of the energy, labour and operational efficiency of the systems. Especially if irrigation is an integral part of the farm operation. Drip irrigation is very rare and apart from (trails with) seed potatoes and other high value crops hardly used.

GPS controlled irrigation

The popularity of GPS controlled sector irrigation on hose reel systems is increasing rapidly. In its most simple setup, the GPS receiver on the sprinkler sends its location so the grower can see whether the sprinkler is actually moving and thus whether the hose reel system is working without problems.

Irrimec offers Toprain which is a GPS-controlled sector operation for adapting the working width of the sprinkler to the local field conditions, to irrigate field borders and non-rectangular fields efficiently and to avoid field side buildings from being hit. Irrimec is also working on a system to vary the speed of the hose reel system in order to enable variable rate application (VRA).

German company Raindancer is debuting its GPS-controlled sector adjustment irrigation this year. The technology is also offered by Bauer who calls it SmartRain and connects with Pessl Instruments soil moisture sensors. The Bauer setup calculates the actual location of the sprinkler based on the starting point of the sprinkler. It can then vary the roll-up speed of the hose reel and thus VRA irrigate.

Soil moisture sensors increasingly popular

Like with spraying, timing is everything when it comes to irrigation. The perfect hose reel system, irrigation boom or pivot system is useless if set to use too late or at the wrong moments. Even local weather reports, rain radar apps and the human (grower) eye are not accurate and capable enough to start irrigating at the optimal moment. This has set off an increased interest in soil moisture sensors. Not that these are new to the market, far from even, but the Internet of Things (IoT) and the LoRa (Long Range) or LPWAN (Low Power Wide Area Network) communication technologies and networks make the sensors and systems much less costly and thus more interesting to use in multiple fields, crops and irrigation zones.

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Internet of Things (IoT) and the LoRa (Long Range) or LPWAN (Low Power Wide Area Network) communication technologies and networks make the sensors and systems much less costly. - Photo: RMA
Internet of Things (IoT) and the LoRa (Long Range) or LPWAN (Low Power Wide Area Network) communication technologies and networks make the sensors and systems much less costly. - Photo: RMA

It’s not only the communication technology that is less expensive, the same goes for costs of data transfer that no longer goes via the 3G and 4G mobile phone networks.

Another price decreasing effect comes from using (small) batteries instead of solar panels and bigger batteries on in-field systems. This is possible because of the fact that LPWAN networks do not send data continuously but in intervals, mostly once every hour. And thus battery life time of these soil moisture sensor systems usually exceeds five years (by far).

Few technology specialists

When it comes to (soil) moisture sensor technology, there’s a limited number of specialists that sell and market their solutions through different channels and OEM-suppliers. Dutch Ag Tech company AppsforAgri is using Sensoterra hardware whereas Sensoterra again sources its technology from Semtech. Sensoterra basically sells its technology worldwide through its distributors, but also sells directly to growers who want more than 50 soil moisture sensors at once.

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In 2 years’ time, AppsforAgri is said to have sold 400 to 500 SoilMate sensors in the Netherlands. - Photo: AppsforAgri
In 2 years’ time, AppsforAgri is said to have sold 400 to 500 SoilMate sensors in the Netherlands. - Photo: AppsforAgri

There is a certain noticeable trend the major full line suppliers adopt third party (high tech) technology without hiding its origin and brands. AppsforAgri for instance has alliances with CNH Industrial and machine manufacturer Lemken to provide them with their SoilMate soil moisture sensors, accompanying smartphone app and application advisory. In 2 years’ time, AppsforAgri is said to have sold 400 to 500 SoilMate sensors in the Netherlands (at € 189 each).

Dutch Beacon Fields has been on the global market since 2018 with LPWAN soil moisture sensors whereas fellow Dutch specialist Dacom has a long history of soil moisture sensor systems.

Deere soil moisture sensor connected to Pessl’s gateway

Trimble and Veris distributor Vantage Agrometius is marketing Austrian Pessl Instruments technology under its GeoBas brand. John Deere has also shifted from its Field Connect system to Pessl which means the Deere soil moisture sensor now is connected to Pessl’s gateway. RMA supplies Adcon Telemetry technology.

About half of the suppliers charges monthly subscription costs for the necessary smartphone app and cloud data storage.

Half of the mentioned soil moisture sensors also measure soil temperature (at various depths). The soil moisture content mostly is expressed as a percentage and sometimes in mm as well.

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John Deere has also shifted from its Field Connect system to Pessl which means the Deere soil moisture sensor now is connected to Pessl’s gateway. - Photo: John Deere
John Deere has also shifted from its Field Connect system to Pessl which means the Deere soil moisture sensor now is connected to Pessl’s gateway. - Photo: John Deere

Weather station

Suppliers indicate that most growers also buy an additional rain gauge and that if there’s a need for monitoring diseases and for advise on the correct timing for spraying, growers tend to buy a complete weather station in combination with soil moisture sensors. There’s a tendency for growers to use soil scan maps with EC (Electric Conductivity) information to determine the correct positioning of the moisture sensors.

Want to know more about the technical specifications of the various systems mentioned in this article? You can find those in the digital magazine, which is free for you to read online.

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