Notes from the Field: A Look at Irrigation Management Practices in Nebraska

One of the things I love most about my work is making periodic treks into the field – more often than not actual fields – to better understand the irrigation problems growers are facing.

Many attribute the military truism, “No plan survives contact with the enemy” to Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, but I have my own spin on that same sentiment when it comes to digital agriculture products. From my perspective: “No digital ag product survives first contact with the grower’s field.”

What does that mean, you ask?

Well, we all have grand ideas that often begin in climate-controlled rooms with warm (sometimes even good) coffee as seemingly perfect ag solutions come together in a flurry of ideas on a whiteboard, followed by copious design documents. Diverse teams of agronomic professionals, scientists, engineers, and business professionals gather to identify the one idea that will make a grower’s life easier. It’s the thing movies are made of about revolutionary technologies taking some sector of the economy by storm.

Unfortunately, once the field is encountered, not only do these products not solve the grower’s problem, they may have created new ones. Maybe the irrigation system constraints were not taken into account, such as pumping capacity, for a specific region. Or, maybe there was an assumption that a certain amount of labor in using our product is acceptable when in reality it’s a non-starter for the grower. Worse still, perhaps the proposed solution is for a problem the grower isn’t even facing – it’s just something that came up in a brilliant whiteboard session.

Either way, a digital ag product is doomed from the start if it doesn’t find its beginnings in the midst of the gravel roads, wind turbines, and center pivots that dot the rural landscape.

If it has first contact with the field in a “finished” form, it’s likely trash-bin material. Instead, the product should start on sheets of notebook paper and open dialogue with those who are struggling to make the yield happen. So, yes, a digital ag product can provide outstanding results, but only when it’s crafted with context that comes from getting face to face with those who are solving problems every day in their fields, with or without a digital tool.

So, back to trekking across the country.

Irrigation before the storm?

On a recent drive through portions of south central Nebraska for some field visits, I saw a curious sight. To my right were fields with corn progressing through or entering into stage v3 being irrigated by center pivots. To my left was this foreboding sight:


Running sprinklers on the right, impending downpours on the left – color me confused. Why would growers, who are much more knowledgeable about their crops, put down water when thunderstorms are rumbling on the horizon? Are the soil moisture conditions so bad in this area that the impending rainfall needs to be augmented by additional watering? Do they not trust the forecast despite dark clouds and high chances of rain on the horizon? There must be more to this.

My first stop was to assess soil moisture conditions in this region. I created a typical corn field with a planting date of May 6, 2018. Utilizing our virtual sensor technology, I generated this plot for a location near my visual observation above:

For reference, the y-axis represents root zone soil moisture depletion, as estimated by our model. A value of 0% depletion represents field capacity and values of 100% depletion represent the wilting point. The blue line is the actual root zone soil moisture depletion on a daily basis. The orange “Max Soil Depletion” line represents the point at which plants are going to become stressed, based on the soil conditions and crop growth stage. You can see that though the field is approaching stress as evidenced by it coming close to the “Max Soil Depletion” level on May 27th, it is still well above the critical value of 46%. Additionally, significant rainfall events (water drop icons in the future) are forecast that meshes with the dark skies I saw to the west on the 28th. These forecast rainfall events are expected to create a full soil moisture profile very soon, as evidenced by the depletion line rising to and hovering around field capacity through May 31st. No crop water issues here!

What gives?

A Deeper Dive

To find out what was going on, I turned to some experts who collectively bring more than 20 years of precision ag experience. One theory they had was that the soil temperatures may have been really warm and some growers may have felt that it could be damaging to the emerging crop (mind you they did not agree with that line of thought). I then took a look at soil temperatures using our virtual sensor tool, WeatherPlot, for the same field and indeed, things were quite hot as 0-10cm average soil temperatures approached 95F by late afternoon:


Therefore, if the practice of keeping the emerging plants and their root zone “cool” has merit, this would seem to be a good time to do it. However, after speaking to the professionals in Nebraska as well as some of my agronomic colleagues, it sounds like this is not really a threat to emerging crops. They are rather resilient under such sweltering conditions. I suppose corn plants don’t sweat for a reason! (Ok, ok, they transpire, which is kind of like sweating, but I digress.)

What about the possibility of a faulty forecast? Most sources of weather information on this day were hinting at a high probability of measurable rainfall in the region on May 28th. If a grower was to look at any public weather forecasting offering it would have been clear that rain chances were fairly high across the region.

Therefore, this leaves me with the following speculative thoughts on what went down in Nebraska:

  • Growers in that region follow a practice of keeping emerging plants “cool” and will water under hot conditions regardless of the rainfall forecast because that will mitigate the risk of crop loss.
  • Growers were dependent on irrigation tools that did not consider the effect of forecast rainfall on the water budget for their plants.
  • Growers had irrigation tools which indicated that forecast rainfall was to occur, but felt it was too high risk to trust the forecast and went with the safe bet of watering despite what the tool said.

Are any of these thoughts the driver behind what actually occurred on those fields? Honestly, I have no idea. I just know there are tools that exist to ensure watering is done only when it really needs to occur based on physical data within the field, married with advanced forecasting techniques.

The whole scenario though does make me think of what one of my professional colleagues said to me during this trip:

“What’s important in irrigation scheduling is having a sound technical reason for performing the action you are performing, not just following locally adopted practices that may actually have no beneficial effect.”

The irrigation management practices that I observed may have had sound rationale behind them, but it’s a good example of the need to make irrigation decisions based on all data points available to the grower. Why? Well, unnecessary watering can lead to higher energy costs, depleted water reserves, anaerobic root environments, nutrient leaching, and disease pressures.

Tools exist to minimize these negative effects and hit the mark on optimal irrigation and subsequent higher yields. Why not take the informed approach?

‘Till next time from the road, happy watering!

Leave a Reply

One comment on “Notes from the Field: A Look at Irrigation Management Practices in Nebraska

  1. There is lot to be said for Not irrigating with a rain storm about ready to drop. In the growers defense, the pivot is used to carry more than just water. I live in south Central Nebraska. Some of our soils are sandy and some are more loamy. One use of the pivot is to apply sulfur through the pivot. Corn at V3 is a pretty good time to apply. During the season (not at V3) growers typically apply nitrogen through the pivot in 2 – 4 applications during the bulk of the vegetative period. Also, Fungicides can be applied though the pivot. My experience with “most” growers is they like to talk. For you to know exactly what is going on, why not ask the grower “Why are you irrigating with a storm coming”. He just might shine light on your problem

Precision Irrigation Stories
Precision IrrigationFertigation as a Precision Agriculture Tool
August 14, 2018
Fertigation is a fertilizer application method in which dissolved fertilizers are delivered to the crop through the irrigation system. This Read More
Industry NewsRanch Systems, IoT Provider Aeris Announce Collaboration Agreement
July 25, 2018
Aeris, a technology provider in the Internet of Things (IoT) space, said today it is collaborating with Ranch Systems of Read More
Precision Irrigation
Data ManagementAgGateway Submits Irrigation Data Standard to ASABE
March 19, 2018
AgGateway has submitted its proposed irrigation data exchange standard to the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE), a Read More
Precision IrrigationLindsay Event Puts Focus on Precision Irrigation and Smart Farming Practices
March 7, 2018
Lindsay Corp., a leading global manufacturer and distributor of irrigation and infrastructure equipment and technology, today hosted Water Matters 3.6.18 Read More
Trending Articles
Data ManagementAre You Using Your Soil to Its Full Potential?
September 14, 2018
Harvest is progressing across most parts of the U.S. and those growers who aren’t already harvesting are gearing up to Read More
Imagery/SensingAgtech: 10 Things I Hate About You!
September 4, 2018
Before you get bent out of shape from the title, remember if you’ve read my articles before you know I Read More
Kansas State University
Industry NewsKansas State University, Topcon Form Precision Ag Research Partnership
August 30, 2018
Kansas State University and Topcon Agriculture are collaborating to develop tools and systems to advance precision agriculture and support farmers. Read More
Blockchain building block graphic
Specialty CropsIs Blockchain the Future of Food Safety?
August 24, 2018
When the Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP) was standardized in 1982, permitting the worldwide proliferation of interconnected networks and eventually the Read More
WinField’s Joel Wipperfurth On Empowering Data-Driven Decisions
InfoAg ConferenceOne on One with Joel Wipperfurth, Winfield United
August 15, 2018
Winfield United's Joel Wipperfurth discusses ag technology trends and topics during last month’s InfoAg Conference. Read More
Industry NewsUrtheCast to Acquire Geosys from Land O’Lakes in $20 Million Deal
August 15, 2018
UrtheCast Corp. and Land O’Lakes, Inc. today announced they have entered a binding term sheet for the purchase of Geosys Read More
Latest News
Business ManagementIvy Tech, Farmers Partner to Help Precision Ag Educatio…
September 20, 2018
Harvest time has taken on a new meaning for some Wabash Valley farmers, and Bobbi Hunt-Kincaid hopes her family’s first Read More
Sensors/IoTThe Answer to Agriculture’s Daunting Challenges – Soil …
September 20, 2018
According to the United Nations, 9.6 billion people will live on planet Earth by 2050. Feeding these mouths will require Read More
Data ManagementRainfall Revisited: Accurate Observations and Beyond
September 18, 2018
As a provider of weather analysis and forecast services to the agricultural industry, one of the most common questions I Read More
Business ManagementWhy Is Funding a Challenge for Women-Led Agtech Compani…
September 17, 2018
When it comes to women-led agtech companies the funding discussion never seems to cease. In June after the The New Read More
Mobile Phone in field
Decision Support SoftwareWhy Are 570 Million Farmers Not Yet Using Agricultural …
September 17, 2018
Until recently, using agricultural apps and software was a rare practice among growers. This is now changing. The mass adoption Read More
Data ManagementAre You Using Your Soil to Its Full Potential?
September 14, 2018
Harvest is progressing across most parts of the U.S. and those growers who aren’t already harvesting are gearing up to Read More
Grower Services & SolutionsDeere-Granular Collaboration Produces New Profit Maps T…
September 14, 2018
The newest development from the ongoing John Deere-Granular product development and marketing collaboration is Profit Maps, now available to farmers Read More
DronesOpinion: Combining Two Pluses with the WingtraOne UAV
September 13, 2018
For the every-day consumer interested in UAVs, there is an ocean of products from which to choose. This includes the Read More
AsiaShould Agri-Input Manufacturers Outsource E-Commerce to…
September 12, 2018
Editor’s note: Venky Ramachandran is a contributing writer for’s sister site, This article was originally published on LinkedIn. Now, Read More
Industry NewsValley Irrigation Adds Remote Irrigation Management Opt…
September 11, 2018
Valley Irrigation, an industry leader in smart irrigation solutions, has announced enhancements to its remote management technologies. Multi-Year Licensing In Read More
Variable Rate ApplicationVariable Rate Fertigation System Expands with Mobile Co…
September 10, 2018
Building on the success of its Reflex Variable Rate Fertigation system, Agri-Inject has taken fluid injection to the next level Read More
Industry NewsTeralytic Earns Ag Data Transparent Certification
September 10, 2018
Soil analytics company Teralytic has completed the Ag Data Transparent certification, affirming that their data use is private, secure, and Read More
Business ManagementTop 20 Two-Year Colleges for Precision Agriculture
September 10, 2018
Earlier this year, I compiled a list of the 25 best colleges for precision agriculture. It was quite the process. Read More
Industry NewsRaven, Topcon Announce Slingshot API Agreement
September 6, 2018
Raven Industries and Topcon Agriculture announced today a licensing agreement for Topcon Agriculture’s use of the Slingshot Application Programming Interface Read More
Tablet Grower
Data ManagementThe Power of Predictive Analytics in Agriculture
September 5, 2018
Years ago if we would have been told computers, data, and technology would be scattered around every farm there may Read More
DronessenseFly Launches eBee X Drone, Breaks Through 1,000 ac…
September 5, 2018
senseFly today reportedly sets a new standard in mapping tools with the launch of the eBee X. Launched with the Read More
AmericasOn The Scene: 2018 Farm Progress Show Wrap Up
September 5, 2018
Former Monsanto President (now Bayer CropScience Chief Operating Office) Brett Begemann’s opening salvo during his first appearance at a Farm Read More
EventsAg Experts Discuss Big Data Challenges in Agriculture
September 5, 2018
Agricultural experts at a Houston conference praised the advancements in unmanned aerial vehicles, sensors, and data-collecting technology used in precision Read More