Technology Takes Field Notes

February 3, 2010 06:00 PM

The data collected by an in-field weather station can prove to be a valuable tool when making management decisions throughout the year.

With features such as leaf wetness detection, soil moisture, relative humidity, solar radiation, and wind speed and direction, to name a few, these systems have the capability to provide farmers with real-time environmental conditions. Even though you can tap public weather data and regionally reported conditions, it's not the same as field-specific numbers.

Weather stations are especially helpful for expanding operations.With fields located miles from the homeplace and your labor force scattered, as well, weather stations serve as an extra set of eyes on your fields, collecting data to keep you informed.

"Because of the specificity of remote sites, it's important to have a weather station in the field to know what is going on,” says Shawn Conley, a soybean and small grain specialist with the University of Wisconsin–Madison Extension. "It could rain an inch at home, and a half a mile away where your field is, it will be different.” 

When compiling records and working with landlords, weather stations also provide the numbers to validate management decisions.

Customized Tool. Cynthia Turski of Spectrum Technologies Inc., encourages producers to find a unit, whether it is a data logger or weather station, to tailor to their needs. 

"The first thing a grower should do is jot down the top couple of problem areas they'd like to improve in their operation. If they want to track temperatures and growth stages or maybe they lost their crop to pests, whatever it may be, they can then find a product to help them address those specific issues,” Turski says.

Decision Time. Weather stations and data loggers can take some of the guesswork out of deciding when to plant. Producers who monitor temperature cycles for air and soil, as well as soil moisture, year-round can use that data to base their decision on science.

Thanks to remote communication features, weather stations can save producers money on irrigation, for example, by automatically turning off pumps.

"One of the biggest areas to save money these days is by reducing water usage,” says Paul Gannett, product marketing manager for Onset Computer.

Using less water means you save on water and fuel costs—as well as fertilizer usage.

Another benefit of remote communication options is an alarm that notifies a producer via phone text message when conditions reach a distressing point.

"We've had the opportunity to use the weather station at several research sites,” Conley says. "When we received a warning that soil moisture hit a low level, it allowed us to notify farmers and provide guidelines for management.”

Weather stations can also measure growing degree days, which helps forecast disease and insect pressure. Properly timing fungicide and pesticide applications saves money and reduces the environmental impact. 

"A mobile weather station, or spraying station, allows growers to record parameters while spraying,” Turski notes. "This helps minimize drift and provides legal evidence of what they are spraying.”

Easy to Use. As with any technology, weather stations continue to advance. Many systems on the market today are plug-and-play, which eliminates wiring and programming. Some are Web-based, others are stand-alone.

Conley says any growers who can use GPS technology can use a weather station as long as they manage it correctly. 

"The only problems we've had are man-made,” he says. "The system we're using has sensors to tell us if there are problems or if we aren't recording something correctly, and then an alarm will go off.”

To transmit data from the field to farm office, more weather stations are Internet accessible with various remote communication options, such as cellular, Wi-Fi and Ethernet.

Cost. Spectrum Technologies' data loggers range in price from $37 to $435, and its WatchDog brand of weather stations starts at $495 and goes up to $1,745. The software, which both systems need, runs $169 for Spec 9 Basic for data loggers; Spec 9 Pro is $294 for weather stations. Data loggers and weather stations offer different features, including wireless and cellular communication options.

Onset Computer's line of HOBO data loggers and weather stations offers a range of data solutions. Stand-alone data loggers start at $42. Multichannel, research grade weather stations start at $2,500. A HOBO micro weather station starts at $215. Onset's annual service plan is $120, which includes some Internet services.

Top Producer, February 2010

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