Weather monitoring means less guessing and more knowing

Almost every decision on the farm is influenced by weather — a factor that is extremely variable and hard to predict. Weather can also vary across a single farm, particularly one that covers a large area.

Weather monitoring can help farmers allocate resources and make key decisions. And while more producers are realizing the benefits of on-farm weather monitoring, many do not know where to begin. Here are some things to consider to help you get a better handle on weather monitoring:

What to measure

Almost anything can be measured — whether the information is useful or not is another story. Most consumer weather stations record, at minimum, air temperature, relative humidity, rainfall, wind speed and wind direction. These measurements will meet most growers needs as crops are mainly influenced by temperature and moisture and tasks like spraying rely on wind, temperature, humidity and rain.

For irrigated farms, additional sensors can be useful. For example, solar radiation, wind speed, air temperature and humidity can be used to calculate crop water demand, which can be used to help estimate watering needs. Soil moisture content can be measured directly in the field using buried sensors and feedback from these sensors provide a real-time indication of when and how much to irrigate.

One limitation of most consumer weather stations is that they only measure liquid precipitation — rain, but not snow. Once temperatures drop below freezing, most rain gauges become useless. This is unfortunate since snow is an important part of soil moisture reserves.

Having said that, snow can be measured by a weighing precipitation gauge, but this type of equipment is very expensive. An effective, low-cost alternative is a simple ruler to measure snow depth.

Types of weather stations

The simplest and cheapest “weather station” is a rain gauge that is read manually and emptied after a rain event. Unfortunately, this becomes labourintensive when trying to monitor several locations or faraway fields.

Likewise, some automated weather stations record measurements to their internal memories, which must be manually downloaded on site. This works fine for research, when the information will be analyzed post-season, but it’s less effective for day-to-day operations, particularly if you need the information at your fingertips.

For these reasons, a weather station with on-board communications is highly recommended. The cost of weather station communications has become more affordable as data plans continue to come down in price. In some cases, less remote stations can take advantage of radio or Wi-Fi, often a more cost-effective communication option.

Proper station placement may dictate the type of communications that should be used. For example, stations with shortrange wireless communications must often be installed near a power source and Internet. On a typical farm, this ends up being near obstructions such as buildings, bins, equipment or trees. It is important to recognize that conditions in a sheltered yard can be quite different than those in the field. Ideally, you should monitor conditions that are as representative of your crop as possible.

Being part of a larger network

When it comes to weather stations, there are definite advantages to being part of a larger network. There are now several thousand weather stations across the prairies so there may already be one or more near your farm.

For those comfortable with sharing their weather data, farms can access stations on neighbouring properties. This provides additional coverage for a limited investment. Fortunately, technology is at the point where this has become relatively easy to do. For those unsure of how to install, operate, and maintain a weather station, there are providers that offer these services.

Gleaning value from the data

Ultimately, the purpose of investing in weather monitoring is to gather intelligence. But remember, data is only useful when something is done with it. Weather measurements, although interesting, will generally not provide advice on when to seed, how much nitrogen to apply, crop staging, disease risk, spray timing or when to harvest. Rather, weather measurements serve as input for advanced analytics and models that simulate the soil and crop, or predict the risk of pests and disease. Accurate and sitespecific weather data, combined with crop, soil, and management information, help farmers make well-informed decisions.

It used to be that farm records, including weather information, were logged in notepads or on spreadsheets. But today, with so much available information, more and more producers are working with third-party aggregators that help collect, analyze and present this information in meaningful ways.

Weather monitoring technology has come a long way in recent years, particularly for the amateur weather watcher. Weather stations are now popping up across the landscape, enabling farmers to monitor field conditions in detail and in real-time. Improved technology has enhanced this ability and is leading to better tools and insight for the data-driven farm. In the end, this means knowledge-based decision support and higher returns for farmers. FF