Why Do They Do That? –Irrigation

Most of us are familiar with weather and know that it is not consistent every year, and rain doesn’t always come when farmers need it. This is why some large fields resort to using some kind of irrigation system. Even though you may see a large irrigation system while driving down the road, it is helpful to note that most of Iowa’s cropland is not irrigated. According to the USDA, other states outside of the Midwest, such as California, Nebraska, Arkansas, and Idaho, rely more heavily on irrigation systems. This is due to their irregular and infrequent precipitation.

Using this method of irrigation systems to water crops, farmers can control their crops’ water requirements if there is not enough rainfall. Like many things in the agriculture industry, the control of these irrigations systems can be automated and can be done right from the farmer’s phone or tablet. With different technologies, farmers can adjust the water pressure, the amount of water, and more without even being on the field, similar to how you could control your home’s security or temperature with smart technology while being on the road. As advanced as this may seem, these irrigation systems continually advance with the rest of the agriculture industry with solar-powered irrigation systems being implemented more widely in the future.

Photo by Adrianna Calvo on Pexels.com

When deciding what kind of irrigation system to use, farmers have several choices: sprinkler vs. drip and center pivot vs. linear.

sprinkler irrigation system:

This system imitates rainfall by distributing the water above the field surface, allowing it to fall on the crops and soil. All plants on the field should receive the same amount of water, hopefully resulting in similar growth. This system is one of the most popular kinds of irrigation, and you probably have seen them in the fields at one time or another. This system is also similar to what many homeowners use to water their lawns. Like every system, sprinkler irrigation has some advantages and disadvantages. A farmer may decide to go with the sprinkler system because of the reduced cost of overall farm labor and reduced soil erosion. Another farmer may opt out of sprinkler irrigation because of the high initial cost of pipes, motors, and installation, and because of the high water loss due to evaporation.

drip irrigation system:

Compared to a sprinkler system, the drip irrigation system can be more efficient than a sprinkler system because the water is being dripped from a lower point, drop by drop (there is less evaporation water loss). With this kind of system, the soil soaks in the droplets before they can evaporate or be blown away by the wind. The water is applied closer to the roots where it is truly needed. Although drip irrigation may seem like the more beneficial choice, there are some downfalls, including that the water outlets get clogged because they are in direct contact with the ground. These systems also take a lot of training to understand the machine and manage the system.

center-pivot irrigation system:

This type of sprinkler irrigation is just what it sounds like: a mechanical system that moves in a circle with a center point. This machine can also be used to apply fertilizers and pesticides. The chemicals are mixed into the water as the water is sprayed onto the field. This multipurpose system can be used on a variety of crops, including vegetables and fruit trees. The center point is usually a permanent, stationary point where the water is pumped up from an underground well. The long arm of the system stretches across half the field and as it moves in a circle, it waters the entire field. The arm is supported by large wheels that travel across the ground and hold the arm up. If you’ve traveled in a plane over Midwest states like Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado and looked out the window, you’ve likely noticed the circular fields. Each one of those fields has a center-pivot irrigation system on it.

Photo by Mark Stebnicki on Pexels.com

Linear Irrigation System:

Linear irrigation systems are marketed to irrigate 98% of the field by traveling across the field in a straight line, forward, and reverse working best in square or rectangular fields. This system is another example of a sprinkler system. The water used is either taken from underground or a hose that drags behind the machine’s wheeled cart. In a linear irrigation system, soil compaction is reduced. It is also easier to work in windier conditions, unlike the center-pivot system because they are lower to the ground. Center-pivot systems can work on tall crops like corn. Linear irrigation system are better for shorter crops like alfalfa.

Now that we know what types of irrigation systems are out there, the final question is, why use them? With this kind of technology, crops can be watered in a controlled environment where the lack of rain can be less of a burden on farmers and their yield. Controlling the amount of water applied in a slow and steady manner can lead to less runoff and erosion. Plus, the time that farmers would typically take using more complex kinds of irrigation can now be spent perfecting other areas of the field or farm operation.

Next time you see one of these systems as your driving down the road, now you will have a better idea of what it does! If you’re a farmer, let us know in the comments what works best for you!


Hi! My name is Madison Paine and I am the education programs intern at IALF for the next year. I am currently a junior at Iowa State University studying agriculture communications. I grew up on an acreage outside of Maxwell, IA where my love for agriculture first sparked. I am very excited to be here and can’t wait to see what this next year all entails!

Is it a bird, a plane? No, it’s a drone!

pexels-photo-1379371 drone small

At first, it’s a little bewildering to hear a whirring noise in the air and look up to find a drone hovering above you. On a recent trip to our local park this summer, my girls and I had such an encounter. If you have an overactive imagination as I do or have seen too many Hollywood sci-fi movies, your mind may start to wander to all the crazy reasons why this drone is here hovering over you. More than likely in the urban environment, it’s some high school student having a little fun flying around, spying on the neighborhood. If you’re out in the rural areas, it could be a farmer using the latest technology to make important crop management decisions or checking up on livestock.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones have been around since the 1980s but their roots date back to World War I. Drone adoption has exploded in recent years and they’ve expanded across many different industries and throughout the world. It’s just been within the last five years that drones were introduced into agriculture, according to DroneDeploy. In the future, drones for agricultural use are projected to make up almost 80 percent of the commercial drone market and have the potential to create an additional 100,000 jobs in the U.S.

You may be asking yourself how technology such as drones helps farmers
In the past, farmers had to walk their fields to monitor for plant health, disease and insect infestations, soil health, irrigation issues and other factors. This practice took time and they were only able to spot check certain parts of the field. The field could look fine on one end and the farmer might think it was progressing well. But, they might not realize on the other side of the field an insect infestation was starting to take hold. The onset of technology has improved a farmer’s capability and efficiency to monitor crops and implement management practices.

Precision agriculture from GPS to drones
Technology is now a part of everyday life for farmers. They’re constantly trying to improve operations ensuring they’re producing crops in the most sustainable, efficient manner possible. Precision agriculture allows farmers to manage their operations using technology to make better decisions. Using technology such as GPS mapping, farmers can drill down to individual acres to determine what’s happening in the field and what actions they may need to take. So, instead of treating a whole field for an issue the farmer can treat specific areas within that field, which reduces inputs into the land and the cost associated with those inputs.

Drones are a new technology to agriculture farmers are just beginning to see as a benefit to their operation. Drones allow farmers to take technology one step further from tools such as GPS mapping. Farmers can get a clearer image of their fields as they aren’t obstructed by cloud cover. Photos are more detailed and they’re able to gather this data in a more cost-effective manner. Different types of views are also available with drones. On the basic level, you can see the field at the crop level to identify soil health, irrigation issues and insect and disease pressure. Next, farmers can take the data gathered and combine it with other data they’ve collected to get a more detailed picture of what’s happening. They can also scout the fields at any time they’d like to monitor how the field is doing over the course of the growing season. In other words, they can monitor their fields in real-time versus having to wait for satellite pictures. Prior to the use of drones, farmers had to order satellite images in advance to get the data they want and at a higher cost. 

drone-2734228_640 drone agriculture

Ways drones can help crop farmers

  • Drones can help farmers get a clearer picture of what’s happening in their fields through the creation of 3-D maps. These maps include visible and thermal imaging. From this information, they can develop multi-spectral images that can help the farmer see plant health issues.
  • With the use of drones, farmers can conduct soil health scans, monitor crop health, compaction areas and track weather impacts.
  • Farmers can take images of their fields to monitor where the healthy crops are and where they might have stressed crops. They can go spot check where problems are occurring and zoom in on top of the issue area. From there, crop management solutions can be put in place.
  • The data gathered can be easily and quickly shared with others to analyze the issues and then determine next steps.
  • By collecting the detailed data from the drones, farmers can better estimate their yields.
  • Most of the drones in the U.S. are currently being used for monitoring but that may change with newer models. In some of the drones used in other countries farmers are applying fertilizers directly via the drone. Some of the drones being used even have planting capabilities.


Drones are also starting to be used in livestock management
For ranchers, drones have the potential to change how they manage their herds. It provides the opportunity for ranchers to extend their visibility in real-time.

  • Time consuming tasks such as checking water troughs and feeders, inspecting fences, checking a herd’s health and calving activity can become a simpler and quicker activity for them.
  • They can use the drones to monitor pasture health and move their animals to different pastures in a timelier manner.
  • Drones can search for lost animals quicker and in a more cost-effective manner. Some ranchers can spend thousands of dollars on GPS tracking collars. With the use of drones, this becomes a less expensive endeavor to track down those animals.
  • Some ranchers are starting to use drones to move their herd as well. Ranchers have to be careful in how they introduce the drones so animals don’t become scared of the drone’s noise or appearance.

sheep-939566_640 drone small

Look for careers in drone piloting and drone services
When precision agriculture started, new services and jobs were introduced into the agriculture industry. Most agriculture companies have employees solely focused on precision agriculture. With the introduction of drone technology, you’ll see these roles and services expanded which will lead to more jobs available in agriculture. In fact, some colleges such as the University of Illinois are beginning to offer classes in drones as well as degree programs.

Technology will help farmers meet global challenges
For crop producers, the main point of all this technology is how can they help their plants thrive and beat issues such as plant disease and insect infestations. With livestock producers and ranchers, how can they help keep their animals healthy and contained.

The world’s population is projected to reach nine billion by 2050. With the increase in population, agricultural consumption will increase by nearly 70 percent yet the available amount of farmland will decrease significantly. On top of all of this, we are also seeing more extreme weather events that greatly impact agriculture productivity. Farmers must embrace new technological strategies and tools such as drones, to increase productivity and yields in a sustainable manner. Drones have the potential to revolutionize the agriculture industry, which will surely impact us all.

Interested in learning more about drones in agriculture?


Finally – just for fun!
If you like to get sucked into searching random things on Google, here are some fun links to explore about what drones have captured on video.

Preg Check – Why Do They Do That?

Calves are starting to hit the ground!

beef_cow18.jpgThat is farmer-speak for this time of year (January, February, and March) when many cows on farms and ranches start to give birth to new calves. For the average passerby this can seem like a miracle of life. But for a farmer, it is the end of a closely watched pregnancy and something that is 283 days in the making. In the early stages, many farmers will conduct pregnancy checks on their cows. But why do they do that?

Farmers who raise breeding stock keep a close and watchful eye on their animals. The average gestation period for a cow is 283 days. But it can range from 279 up to 287 days (approximately 2 weeks longer than a human pregnancy). Human mothers will do doctor check-ups regularly throughout their pregnancy to ensure that everything is going smoothly and that the fetus is developing normally. Just like humans, cows will receive some regular check ups from the doctor (veterinarian) too. One of the first check ups is a pregnancy check to determine if the cow is indeed pregnant.

Most cows that are raised together will go into heat or estrus around the same time. A farmer can introduce a bull into the pasture opting for natural insemination or a farmer might choose to artificially inseminate their herd. Through artificial insemination straws of semen, previously collected from preferred bulls based on genetic traits and characteristics, are inserted into the cow through the rectal-vaginal technique. Then 4-10 weeks later the farmer will check to see if the cow is pregnant.

If the cow is pregnant, then the farmer will be able to build their herd. The farmer can monitor the overall herd health and reproductive status keeping detailed records of the pregnancies. Once the calf is born it can be sold for meat or raised to be breeding stock. However, it is just as important to know if the cow is NOT pregnant after natural or artificial insemination. If a cow is open (not pregnant) the farmer can make better management decisions like selling during peak market prices, culling the herd to improve genetics, or trying to inseminate again. If too many cows are open and did not get pregnant, then that could be an indicator of herd nutritional deficiencies or diseases that then need to be addressed.

There are three main methods of conducting these pregnancy checks on cows. An ultrasound technician can recognize a pregnancy in as little as 25 days. This requires a fair amount of preparation and time with each animal. The machines are not cheap. The second method is a blood test. Blood samples from each cow can be drawn and sent into a lab for analysis. The blood needs to be taken at least 30 days after breeding. But the most common method is rectal palpation. This is by far the cheapest and most convenient. Trained veterinarians can identify a pregnancy in as little as six weeks (usually 8-10 weeks). This involves the vet wearing a REALLY long glove (shoulder length) and feeling inside the cow for the calf’s head. The vet can also check for a pulse in the artery supplying blood to the uterus and check the shape of the uterus. A good operation and a well trained technician can pregnancy test up to 60 cows per hour!


Image borrowed from: http://unplugging.us/how-to-check-cow-pregnancy/

The age of the fetus can be estimated, which gives the farmer a better idea of when the cow will give birth. In the cold months of the year, cows may be brought indoors to give birth or otherwise just be more closely monitored. Cows experiencing trouble during birth might be given help and the farmer might pull the calf.

Ultimately, pregnancy testing is of little use as an aid to management unless the information gained is used to make management decisions. This process of pregnancy checking can cause some stress on the cows and can result in a loss of the fetus. Pregnancy loss can be 1-3.5% when palpation or ultrasound are used. So farmers need to take this risk factor into consideration. But most find that the benefits of knowing if the cow is pregnant and making management decisions outweigh the risk. It is important to evaluate the different methods for pregnancy testing and make the best decision for your operation.

If a farmer can sell a non-pregnant female at market in August they could earn prices that are 5-10% higher than prices in October or November. Cows will also lose weight after August due to forage quality decreasing into the fall and winter months. Selling non-pregnant females takes advantage of higher weights. Cattle are sold by weight, so the farmer stands to make more money with heavier animals.  Non-pregnant heifers and cows can provide as much as 20% of the gross income to a cow-calf operation on an annual basis. Making decisions based on information and data allow farmers to manage their operation in the best possible way.


Why do they do that? – Self-steering Tractors

inside cropped

I recently called my dad while he was running the tractor and field cultivator, preparing the field to plant corn. I quickly offered to call another time, but he insisted that he could talk for a minute because he was “hands-free.”  He wasn’t just referring to using a blue-tooth head-set, either.  He was driving the tractor hands-free, too!

His tractor is equipped with an automated guidance system. The system uses a GPS receiver mounted on the tractor and a computer equipped with special software in the tractor cab to control the tractor’s steering system and guide the tractor through the field.  Automated guidance systems are one part of precision agriculture, which has brought many changes in farming in recent years.

So why do farmers use auto-guidance systems, aka self-steering tractors?  Steering a tractor seems easy, especially since tractors are already equipped with all the amenities I appreciate in my car.  Most have heating and air-conditioning, tilt-steering, tinted windows, a nice stereo system, and comfortable seats.  Some models are even available with cruise control, heated seats, and leather upholstery.  Seems pretty nice, right?

While reducing driver fatigue is one perk of automated guidance systems, there are many other benefits that make this technology a valuable investment to farmers.


Cost Savings.  Before guidance systems, farmers sometimes overlapped rows when planting or applying fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide.  Auto guidance systems precisely guide the equipment so there is little to no overlap.  When the planter does cross over an area that was already planted, some  will automatically shut off rows of the planter so no seed is released.

Less overlap means fewer trips across  the field, which reduces fuel and labor costs too.

Overlapping rows-by 3-4 inches does not seem like a big deal, but it adds up to a significant waste of resources over hundreds of acres.  In this 2012 study, a tractor and planter equipped with auto-steering and automatic row shut-off technology increased profit by $111/acre in corn and $65/acre in soybeans.  According to the USDA, farmers often recoup the costs of a guidance system in just two to three years.

Better for the Environment.  Using less fuel and fertilizer is not only good for the bank account, but it’s good for the environment too. Reducing overlap and applying fertilizer more precisely, reduces environmental pollution and improves water quality by reducing nutrient runoff.

 newhollandReduced Soil Compaction. Driving heavy equipment across the field compacts the soil, which can make it more difficult for seedlings to emerge and restricts water, nutrient, and air movement in the soil. This reduces crop yield and can lead to increased runoff and soil erosion.   Auto-guidance systems can enable farmers to drive in exactly the same paths when cultivating, planting, spraying, and harvesting.  The soil is still compacted in these paths, but it reduces the overall compaction of the field.

Improved crop yield.  Using auto-guidance technology can increase yield in several ways.  By covering more acres in less time, farmers can finish planting earlier in the season which has been shown to increase yield in corn.  Reducing overlap improves yield, too.  Overlapping when planting results in crowded plants that that compete for water and nutrients and do not grow well.  Over-applying fertilizer due to overlap can stunt plant growth and decrease yield, too.

 anhydrousImproved efficiency & safety.  Driving a tractor can be exhausting and stressful.  In addition to steering, the driver is listening to the engine, watching the gauges, keeping an eye on the implement behind them, and scanning the field for rocks, west spots, and other obstacles.  When you’re tired or stressed, mistakes happen.  Mistakes while operating farm equipment can be dangerous and costly.

Auto-guidance systems take the work of steering away and enable farmers to focus on the tractor, implement, and field.  Less multitasking decreases stress and driver fatigue, which improves efficiency and safety.

Auto-guidance systems also enable farmers to better operate equipment when visibility is low because of dust, fog, or sun glare.  Nighttime operation is much more feasible, too.

Technology in agriculture has advanced dramatically since I was a kid riding with my dad in the tractor.  It’s exciting to think about the technology farmers will use  20-30 years from now.