Weather and other environmental conditions are the single most talked-about subjects among growers, as they have by far the biggest influence on cropping success or failure.
While the plethora of weather forecasting and information services available can provide a good idea of prevailing conditions, generating your own real-time, local environmental data can be invaluable in making more informed crop management decisions.
In addition, having the ability to store that information and build a long-term record enables growers to benchmark which practices worked well in specific seasons or conditions.
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The technology available to generate this information has improved significantly over recent years, with accurate monitoring with weather stations and sensors more affordable and accessible than ever.
So, what hardware do you need? There is a massive variety of options to choose from, ranging from a $60 home weather station purchased online to those used at commercial airports costing up to $64,000.
John Dann, managing director at UK-based environmental monitoring experts Prodata Weather Systems, says at the cheapest end, accuracy and reliability can be poor, so it is best avoided. Conversely, a farmer doesn’t need the military precision found at the top end.
“But there are now systems that provide cost-effective accuracy and reliability that, until recently, were five times as much,” he adds. Prodata sales and development manager Peter Palmer says the number of features available with the latest monitoring systems is almost endless, but complexity isn’t necessarily required in every situation.
“Establishing what you are trying to achieve with the data is the first step and will dictate what equipment is needed,” he adds. For those with small- to medium-sized farms growing combinable crops, where real-time information for spraying and weather record keeping are primary aims, a basic system should suffice.
However, those with high-value crops such as vegetables or potatoes looking to manage irrigation and inform other crop input decisions, will need a much more high-tech approach.
The Cambridgeshire firm is an agent for US maker Davis Instruments, which produces home and professional environmental monitoring equipment, but many manufacturers offer similar equipment and services for varying cost.
Davis’s basic Vantage Vue model costs about $385 and includes an anemometer (for wind speed), rain collector, temperature and humidity sensors and comes with an LCD display that can sit in the home or office. Data can be logged and analysed with optional PC software.
However, the system has limitations and can’t be expanded to include other sensors such as UV and solar – used to monitor growing conditions and calculate evapotranspiration.
The next models up are Davis’s Vantage Pro2 or Vantage Pro2 Plus, which have a detachable anemometer, UV and solar monitoring as an option and can connect wirelessly to soil moisture, leaf wetness, temperature and humidity sensors positioned around the farm. The starting price for a Vantage Pro2 is about $900, although Mr Palmer notes that the cost can rise as more sensors are added to the system.
Its soil moisture reading can help with irrigation decisions, while remote leaf wetness, temperature and humidity sensors can help with integrated pest management, better targeting pests and diseases with pesticides during high-risk conditions.
The Vue or Vantage Pro sensor suites can push data to the WeatherLink.com online portal, including remote sensor siting if the Vantage Connect option is specified.
Data can then be viewed remotely worldwide using a desktop computer, smartphone or tablet. Alerts for certain parameters can be set up accordingly – for example, if high winds or frosts – critical in vineyards – threaten.
But perhaps the most appealing option is the recently launched, fully integrated EnviroMonitor system, which connects multiple weather stations and sensors around the farm to a wireless network and pushes data automatically to the cloud.
The data can then be accessed via a free iOS or Android app for smartphones or tablets and on desktops or laptops through the WeatherLink web portal, where advanced visualisation tools can be used to analyse the information.
“Each network is capable of supporting 20 or more nodes [the hardware that transfers data between sensors and the network] and each node is capable of hosting four sensors, so large areas can be populated with monitoring equipment,” explains Mr Palmer.
A standalone cloud-based system with weather station would cost about $2,000, rising proportionately as more complexity is added into the set-up. Both Vantage Pro Connect systems and EnviroMonitor require an annual subscription for mobile network usage, with 15min updates at £160/year, and 5min updates at £210/year.
While there is a cost, Mr Palmer says such systems won’t take long to earn their keep through better targeting of water, fertiliser and chemical inputs and, particularly in the case of cloud-based systems, enabling growers to take advantage of “big data” in the years to come.
“Making good use of the data you collect will be crucial and the more that is collated online, the more [growers] will be able to optimise their management,” he adds.
1) Set goals – Before investing, be clear about what you want to achieve. The size of farm, crops you grow and whether or not you are using irrigation will dictate the number of stations and sensors required.
2) Data use – If using weather data proactively to influence crop management, a real-time, cloud-based monitoring system will be the best option. Conversely, if you only want to record localised weather trends, such as rainfall, a more basic package should suffice.
3) Siting – Choosing where to place your weather stations and sensors is critical for generating valuable data: rain gauges should be out in the open and preferably sited over grass, as splashback from hard surfaces can compromise the accuracy of the recording. UV and solar radiation sensors should not be in the shade at any point during the day. To avoid false readings, temperature and humidity sensors should ideally be situated above established grass and not hard surfaces such as asphalt or concrete. Where monitoring wind for spraying conditions, ensure the anemometer is no more than 2-3m above the ground to get a relevant reading.
4) Sensors – Where sensors are being used to record soil moisture, soil salinity, crop leaf wetness or grain or cold store status, consult with the relevant experts to ensure they are in the right place.
5) Regular checks – Although most systems provide the user with alerts if a fault occurs, it is good practice to visit and check all instruments on a regular basis to ensure nothing is influencing readings and providing false data.
6) Support – You can purchase hundreds of monitoring products online, but these rarely come with pre- and post-sale advice and support. Using a reputable dealer with experts at hand ensures you get the right kit, set-up advice and support to get the most out of it.