Reduce water consumption, save on labour and increase peace of mind. These were the goals Dutch grower Ronald Swinkels set himself a year ago when he started working with precision irrigation within the Dutch NPPL project. How did 2020 go and what are his plans for 2021?
Ronald Swinkels takes part in the NPPL project, were growers start working with precision farming technologies, guided by experts from Wageningen University & Research.
Irrigation expensive and time-consuming
The fact that the leek grower decided to focuson precision irrigation is not surprising: after all, irrigation is one of the most expensive and time-consuming jobs on Ronald Swinkels’ farm. “During the season you sometimes have to go to a particular reel three times a day. From April to August – depending on the weather – one employee is busy full-time with just irrigation. In addition, the fuel costs are substantial,” says Swinkels.
“We didn’t always irrigate efficiently and sometimes there was an overlap. As a result, we wasted quite a few cubic meters of water. In addition, we used to irrigate mainly on the basis of gut feeling and experience; there was no hard data to work from.”
In the meantime, the necessary innovative techniques have been implemented and Swinkels sees – despite some start-up problems – a clear added value. In 2021 he hopes to be able to take further steps, both in precision irrigation and in other areas.
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Ronald Swinkels has several sprinkler reels at work during the growing season. With precision irrigation, he tries to reduce water and fuel consumption. - Photo: Peter Roek
Since last summer, Swinkels has been experimenting with the Sime Elektrorain and the Raindancer. The Sime Elektrorain is an electrically powered irrigation gun, the Raindancer system includes a GPS module to monitor and control the irrigation from a phone and computer. “We actually wanted to start earlier, but due to corona the systems were delivered later. As a result, we now have a reasonable idea of how the equipment works, but we haven’t been able to get everything out of it yet. For that you need to have run a full season with it,” says Swinkels.
Even irrigation result
Nevertheless, the grower is confident that the irrigation result is more even. “Hardly any spraying takes place outside the field borders and the field corners are better covered. Especially in a dry year like 2020, this had a clear added value and it improved overall results. If we can equip all our five reels with this technology in the future, it should certainly be possible to save 20 or 30% on our water consumption and recoup the investments within a few years.”
Until now, precision irrigation systems did not necessarily give Swinkels more peace of mind. “You have to learn how best to set up the system. That takes at least a year. In the beginning, there were also the necessary ‘start-up problems’, including entering our plots into the systems. And because few Dutch growers are working with these techniques, the available knowledge is limited.”
These are definitely technologies with a lot of potential and we certainly want to invest in them further
Nevertheless, Swinkels is convinced that this year, when all the employees involved have mastered the systems, precision irrigation will lead to greater peace of mind. “After all, you can set the systems remotely. These are definitely technologies with a lot of potential and we certainly want to invest in them further. In fact, that’s what we‘re doing this season in the Raindancer systems.”
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Ronald Swinkels: "We have to run another season to get everything out of the equipment." - Photo: Peter Roek
Raindancer more advanced
Swinkels opts for the Raindancer instead of the Sime Elektrorain because, according to him, this technique is more advanced. “The Raindancer module sets itself, can independently determine the location of the reel and makes sure it stays within the field boundaries. The Sime Elektrorain you have to ‘feed’ more, you have to set more things manually.”
Soil moisture sensors
Last year, Swinkels also started using four soil moisture sensors to map the amount of soil moisture and the ability of the soil to absorb water. The intention was that these would help him further fine-tune his irrigation strategy. “While the sensors gave me a lot of extra information last season, interpreting the data correctly was quite a chore. They calculate with moisture percentages, whereas I am used to working with millimeters. As a result, the traditional rain gauge and our own visual observations have remained the most important indicators for our irrigation strategy up to now.”
To better exploit the added value of soil moisture sensors, Swinkels will be testing four different sensors this coming season. The key question here is which sensor is the most user-friendly and provides the most realistic and easily interpretable data. In addition, in collaboration with Wageningen University & Research, he is going to investigate the profitability of level-controlled drainage.
Some of Swinkels’ plots are equipped with this technique. “In some cases, however, it is necessary to connect a supply hose to the drainage system in order to pump up groundwater. The question is whether this is profitable, or whether reel irrigation is a better option in this case. We want to map that out this year.”
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Ronald Swinkels used four soil moisture sensors to map soil moisture content. - Photo: Peter Roek
But there is even more on the agenda for 2021. For example, Swinkels wants to look at the possibilities of making weed control on his farm – also a very time-consuming activity – more efficient. For that reason, he recently invested in a hoeing machine equipped with a camera to distinguish leek plants from weeds. “I have high hopes for this machine. I hope that it will allow us to hoe more efficiently and accurately, and that our hoeing machine can reach a higher speed.”
More intensive guidance
In summary, Swinkels is therefore going to broaden his NPPL participation in 2021 and work with more issues. “We also hope that the guidance from WUR can be intensified this year. Last year, this was at a fairly low level due to corona. More intensive guidance should also help us to take real steps forward in 2021.”