Published the 23/10/2018
AgriTech: this word has entered our vocabulary at a time when start-ups and the agrosupply giants have been even more ingenious in creating new connected tools that have transformed the landscape of world agriculture. There is a guiding theme and it is no longer a fantasy: entering into the era of precision agriculture. Why? To meet a number of major challenges. At global level, it is, of course, a matter of conserving our resources to the maximum and optimising their use, so as to feed a growing population. For the French producers, affected by this issue along with the other powerhouses of modern agriculture, becoming a part of this new era should allow them to increase their economic viability and survive in this globalised market. This will be achieved by stabilising their production, which should satisfy the very specific consumer demand, saving on resources and inputs and cutting back on labour…
Irrigation is, in all farming practices, one of the most controversial topics in the eyes of the public, together with the permitted use of chemical substances that allow the farmers to produce more. But we don’t only want to produce more, we also want produce in a better way. That is the challenge we have faced over the last few decades with the use of micro-irrigation: drip irrigation and micro-sprinkler techniques, which are constantly evolving, bring the water and nutrients directly to the plant at the correct time and place. Thus, a yield is produced without any wastage or contamination. However, these technologies require a certain expertise in order to achieve optimal production. The method of managing the amounts applied is not at all comparable with the conventional tools used in the past. How much should be applied? When? How frequently? There are two major factors embedded in the secret of achieving optimal productivity: understanding the crop’s needs and scheduling the system to achieve a tailor-made solution.
The first challenge is, therefore, understanding the needs of the crop. Or rather, quantifying the needs of the crop! The producers know their land and can manage their production. However, certain parameters do not depend on this and are difficult to evaluate over time without the correct equipment: climatic conditions, soil moisture content deeper down or even the actual availability of the nutrients for the plant. These parameters will help to determine the efficiency of use of the inputs, water and fertilisers (and even plant health products). Netafim has developed monitoring solutions that allow the farmers to know at any given moment and in real time the moisture content of the soil at different depths, using a system of sensors, whose data can be read directly on the smart phone, tablet or via the UManage® interface. The choice of sensors is not only restricted to the tensiometers currently used, there are also a number of capacitive sensors, some of which are capable of measuring the moisture content of several depths of soil at the same time. In order to complete the information, Netafim also offers small weather stations, which measure, in particular, the local evapotranspiration rate as well as rainfall, solar radiation, wind, etc. Together, these indirect indicators show in a reliable manner whether there is a water deficit and, via an alert system transmitted by SMS, allow the farmer to take the necessary steps immediately and thus preserve his or her yield. There are also other instruments that take measurements directly next to the plant. However, these tools have proved to be difficult to use or interpret: they are often time-consuming and require a not inconsiderable amount of analysis (pressure chamber, dendrometer, etc.) or they are specialised for a given type of crop and cannot be used over the whole farm.
In parallel with these, there are central control systems which allow the operator to programme the opening and closing of the valves, thus effortlessly adjusting the irrigation system, and being able to detect the slightest anomaly very quickly (repairing the drippers, maintaining the filtration system).
That is the second challenge, managing such an advanced system. Controlling irrigation remotely is invaluable: guaranteed saving on time and better responsiveness. Netafim offers irrigation networks where the valves are connected to the controllers by cable or by radio with the availability of an easy-to-use irrigation programme management interface. We are able to expand this global technology to include the distribution of nutrients by fertigation: i.e. injecting into the irrigation water, in a soluble or liquid form, the fertilisers necessary for plant growth. There are smart fertigation units on the market, such as Fertione®, which inject into the system the precise amounts required by the producer, providing multiple agronomic and economic benefits for the precision application system, with no wastage.
Even though all these solutions are functional and efficient, there are still obstacles to be overcome. In particular, they are difficult to tackle for users who are less at ease with the technology of having to calibrate “agronomically” to create programmes corresponding to the current crop, on a given soil and under variable conditions. These solutions are not smart in the sense that they are self-reliant, rather each item requires experience, skill and the ability to analyse. There are drawbacks for its wholesale adoption in spite of the widespread interest shown by the producers for these technologies. Apart from the lack of proficiency, it is difficult to warrant their high cost.
Partial solutions offered by other companies could be more affordable and would represent a good compromise. However, they are very time-consuming and the surveying and interpretation tasks are not luxuries that the farmers can grant themselves.
So how can we bring in a solution that genuinely optimises production by ensuring that the demands of the producer match the elements measured in the field? How can we link up these partial solutions? How can we help the farmer interpret this fluctuating data in a relevant and useful automated programme that opens and closes the valves when required.
Drawing on its experience acquired over a number of decades in each of the areas in question, Netafim has developed a technology that combines them all, thus making them smart devices. The NetBeat® system represents an advance on our previous solutions and the other products offered on the market, on account of two major innovations:
• A unique interface that gives access to all these parameters
• Real-time quantitative recommendations for irrigation are provided on a daily basis
Apart from the existing central control and data display facilities and subject to holding the corresponding commercial offer, NetBeat® contains a Crop Model, developed after many years of research. In combination with a sound knowledge of the growing stages of the different plants, external data such as the climate and the soil allow the user to predict the level of growth and development of the current crop, and thus estimate its water requirements in real time. With the approval of the FAO, Netafim now uses the AquaCrop model for annual crops and the company has created its own model based on the results of its tests for perennial crops: calculating the actual evapotranspiration by using the crop coefficient Kc.
This model generates a strategy on a daily basis and gives a recommendation for each irrigation zone. It, therefore, allows for a number of crop types and fields to be managed. It also provides access to the historical data so as to have an understanding of the real conditions under which the plant is developing, with an indication of the water consumed for irrigation if it is measured with a water meter.
You only have to add information taken from the field to the prediction, measured by sensors and other probes already available on the market. If the model does not predict the need to irrigate, but the sensors indicate a soil moisture content that falls below the set threshold, then the recommendation will be adjusted to take these actual readings into account.
For some crops, the farmer can also stipulate whether he wishes to apply a particular irrigation schedule (controlled water deficit in the case of grapevines, for example) and in this case the quantities of water suggested can also be adjusted according to these criteria.
It is clear that the modern producers are forced to spend too much time and money on running the farm. They constantly struggle to get all the information together, which they require to enable them to make the correct decision and then act in time.
However, the technology and automation improves our decision-making and the use of our resources. The technology optimises the results and gives us more free time and peace of mind. In short, the technology makes life easier. You can produce more with less effort (time, land, fertilisers, water).
But in the end the farmer has to retain the sole decision-making powers with regard to his or her irrigation programmes, with the option to follow or otherwise the recommendations given to him or her and determine how to apply them (frequency of applications). The interface, which is particularly user-friendly, should be able to control all the elements as a whole, whereas they previously had to be checked individually: monitoring, opening the valves, back-flushing the filters, fertilisation programmes, etc.
It is for all these reasons that systems such as NetBeat® will be ever-present in the future and they will constitute a veritable production assistant. This type of system combines dynamic crop models with real time data acquisition in the field so as customise the programmes (irrigation and others) and thus optimise the harvest. In the long run, it will help achieve a higher level of performance from the precision irrigation system (drip irrigation, micro-sprinklers) to ensure that the operation is more profitable and predictable.
For the producers, there will be more holistic approach as far as operating the system is concerned, freeing them from a number of constraints and limitations in order to help them dedicate more time towards essential tasks such as, for example, optimising the commercialisation aspect of their production. These will be genuinely smart systems; at Netafim we describe this new NetBeat® platform as “the first irrigation system with a brain”.
Implemented for the first time in 2018 after months of tests and available in France from january 2019, NetBeat®, just like all the micro-irrigation products, is geared towards continuous development, incorporating the new knowledge gained on a daily basis.