Weather monitoring means better farm management

Nowadays, there is no shortage of things to measure. Every piece of equipment has countless sensors to keep tabs on its performance. Improved communications have allowed for real-time updates and instant alerts in case anything goes wrong.

The new buzzword, “Internet of Things” (IoT), means that anything with an on/off switch such as a vehicle, coffee maker, smart phone, wearable device and machine component such as an engine can be connected. According to recent estimates, the IoT will consist of almost 50 billion connected objects by 2020. And weather monitoring equipment is no exception.

It used to be that weather was only officially recorded at cities or airports. Farms had a manual rain gauge to track how much rain fell at the yard site. As every farmer knows, rain does not fall uniformly across the landscape, particularly during summer storm season, so rainfall that was measured at the nearest weather station was usually different than rainfall measured at the yard or in any field.

Also, farms in general have increased in size over the last several years, further increasing the variability of weather across the entire operation. As a result, site-specific weather monitoring has become increasingly more valuable so farmers now know conditions at any given location. Weather is now monitored and reported throughout the countryside with an unprecedented attention to detail.

But what are the benefits? When it comes to any new technology for the farm, there’s always the question of whether or not it will be a useful tool or just a gadget that doesn’t necessarily offer much benefit or return on investment.

In recent years, more farmers have realized the benefits of weather monitoring — using the latest technology to transform large amounts of data into valuable information, which can then provide relevant, actionable insight. Here are some of the main areas of use:

Crop scouting: Crop scouting is a necessary, yet time-consuming task. If ignored, small problems can quickly escalate. In order to maximize scouting time, the right fields must be visited at the appropriate time –— specifically, when crops are susceptible to certain pests and diseases. More farmers are using heat units to estimate a crop’s growth stage and to predict when the next critical stage will occur. Scouting can then be scheduled to correspond with susceptible periods instead of spending time inspecting crops that are doing well.

Nutrient management: Following the four Rs of nutrient management — right source, right rate, right time, right place — can be tricky when there are so many factors at play, particularly when faced with unknowns such as crop uptake, nutrient loss and final yield — most of which are influenced by the weather.

Developments in plant and soil simulation modelling help to provide insight into crop nutrient status and anticipated demands. These models incorporate crop and soil characteristics, data from in-field sensors, observed weather and weather forecasts to help indicate a crop’s nutrient status — whether adequate or deficient. Farmers can then apply additional nutrients based on sound recommendations.

Risk management: Insect development and activity are highly dependent on weather conditions. Most insects require a certain amount of heat in order to progress through their development stages. Crop diseases are also influenced by the weather, normally requiring a certain threshold of wetness and range of temperatures to cause an outbreak. Knowing the status of pests or the potential for disease can be an immense help in targeting high risk areas.

Farm operations: One of the most frustrating and costly situations is to prepare equipment, travel a long distance to the field, only to find out that the weather conditions are not suitable to proceed with the task at hand. This is where farmers really appreciate having access to a network of weather stations, including those located further afield.

If the station near a distant field is showing that too much rain fell there overnight for a successful harvest, you can check to see if other fields are more suitable to be worked. Likewise, an accurate, fieldlevel forecast can also help avoid cancelling or abandoning field operations due to what was thought to be unsuitable weather.

Crop insurance: It started with energy companies and ski resorts hedging their risk against weather-related perils, and today agriculture is gradually starting to adopt weather derivative-based crop insurance. Unlike conventional crop insurance that relies on a farm’s past productivity, producers are able to insure crops against abnormal temperature and precipitation as recorded at a nearby weather station.

If the seasonal accumulation of heat units or rainfall is below a set threshold, an automatic payment is triggered. For example, Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corporation’s Forage Rainfall Insurance Program protects grazing acres in the event that rainfall is below the long-term average. The main benefit is that payments are not tied to yield or management, but to the root cause of yield loss. Such programs have also gained popularity in developing countries where conventional crop insurance is unavailable.

These are only a few examples of the many benefits of weather monitoring on the farm. Like any tool, there are countless applications that are currently being employed or yet to be realized. Agricultural solutions providers and even traditionally non-agricultural groups, like IBM, have been investing huge amounts of resources into agricultural decision support. The end result will be better tools that help with day-to-day farm management.

Future articles will discuss different types of weather monitoring equipment, forecasts, and some of the tools that are available to benefit farming.