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Introducing: Variable Rate Fertigation

Fertigation has been growing in popularity with many farmers reaping the benefits of fertilizing their soils from the ground up through pumping the soil enhancing agents through existing irrigation systems. Large scale commercial enterprises use fertigation to control the soil quality and consistency on a mass scale to ensure crop consistency. This blanket application policy means that the soils are more consistent, sometimes however, they are consistently poor rather than consistently good.

Even a non-farmer would be able to tell you that soils are different across a field, sometimes though simply observing and seeing colour and texture differences. Common sense would also play a large part in the observation process, an amateur should be able to realise a sun coated area of soil will have different qualities to a shaded section of land.

With fertigation this simple fact proves to be tricky and troublesome. Some areas of land need a higher amount of irrigation than others for example. But, those high irrigation areas may not need as much fertilizer as they do water. Currently because of the crude methods and equipment there is no way of restricting one or the other. In short if an area is going to get saturated in water for hydration it is also going to get a higher proportion of the fertilizers and chemicals.

This is actually damaging over time and poor soil maintenance practice. It is only really done because there is no alternative other than leaving the land to its own devices or spending considerable amounts of time fertilising and irrigating separately. In big agricultural business that time equates to higher costs and lost return on investment.

Now anyone that uses fertigation will know the inherent problems with the system. They will even know that being able to control the flow of water, chemicals, fertilisers etc through the same system is the solution. Practicality wise this was the stuff of dreams. Systems fell short, were not robust enough to implement the complex systems and in general were rudimentary and not fit for such a drastic improvement. But that was then…

Now, Variable Rate Fertigation is no longer a pipe dream (excuse the pun). Farmers in the US have been testing out new fertigation systems that have some very impressive qualities and have had some very successful yield results. We have compiled a simple and exciting list of the 5 things that a variable rate fertigation system can do for your farm that your current fertigation/irrigation system can’t.

1)      Matching flow to changing conditions. This one on a broader scale is able to be implemented through most current fertigation systems and to some extent standard irrigation systems. I.e. If it has rained heavily the night before then you simply wouldn’t turn on the irrigation system. But soil isn’t such a simple compound and water isn’t its only need. So, with new variable rate fertigation systems you can significantly reduce water flows and maintain the same fertiliser content. Farmers on the trial even found it beneficial to increase fertilisers and minerals in that particular situation to replace any that nutrients that had been washed away by the weather.

2)      Micro managing the soils. As mentioned earlier, your soil will be different in different areas of your land. You will need to irrigate some parts more heavily because of high drainage and avoid irrigating certain parts because the soils or land retains the water. With variable rate fertigation a farmer can now get exactly what is needed to where it is needed. During the course of the studies farmers found that they were better able to manage soil consistencies on a large scale which improved the consistency and quantity of the overall crop.

3)      Time saved. One of the surprising by products of streamlining the fertigation system was that farmers found their fertigation times were reduced. Using smart data collection and then programming the software to respond accordingly meant there was around the same time upfront as a standard fertigation system but that on the back end there was far less work to be done. This was in part due to the occasional problem area that a standard fertigation system would create which would then need remedying. Farmers found less problems, less often using variable rate fertigation systems. This in turn saved them many man hours.

4)      Better crop consistency. When the soil is tailor made and monitored on an ongoing basis the farmers found that the crops being grown were of better size and health than previous harvests. This was due to crops having a constant source of water and nutrients, providing them with a stable and less stressful environment in which to grow. This better crop consistency reduced the total crop spoilage as well as producing a better-quality crop.

5)      More crop out-put. We have touched on this point a little earlier in the article and have saved the best till last. Along with the lower spoilage and higher crop consistency came a marked increase in total yield. This allowed farmers that took part in the study to do 3 things.

  1. a)       Make more money. The increased yields resulted in higher profits because they had more crop to sell.
  2. b)      Use the yield data. Some of the farmers were particularly savvy and used the previous yield information to target areas for the next harvest that could have done better. They re-programmed their software and pumped the nutrients and fertilisers into the areas that could do with an extra boost. They found by doing this year on year their yields were gradually increasing which meant more of point (A).
  3. c)       Expand. Having more profit means room for expansion. Farmers used the increased revenue to expand their fertigation systems, buy or rent additional storage facilities (something especially useful with the newfound abundance of crops) and last but not least farmers used the money to invest in further technological improvements to streamline other areas of their farms.

All in all, the variable rate fertigation systems being developed are extremely exciting as a prospect. They worked well when implemented across a variety of farms for the study however these farms often had existing fertigation systems that were robust enough to install the new technology or the tech was provided to them or subsidised. That means that a variable rate fertigation system is fairly costly to put in place and would not be advisable for smaller farm ventures currently. That being said all new technology is dearer to start with. As time goes by and it becomes cheaper to manufacture and demand grows meaning it goes in to mass production the tech becomes cheaper for smart agriculturalists everywhere to buy.

What do you think of fertigation? Have you had positive outcomes combining your fertilization and irrigation? And, are you looking forward to getting into variable rate fertigation?

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