by Courtney Llewellyn

Anyone who uses irrigation knows there are myriad ways an irrigation system can have issues – clogs, leaks, pressure issues and more. But what are the real costs of irrigation problems on yield, efficiency, quality and your bottom line? That’s what John Bourne, vice president of Ceres Imaging, addressed with his “Low Hanging Fruit: The Surprisingly Huge Impact of Acute Irrigation Issues” webinar during World Ag Expo.

Ceres Imaging conducted a comprehensive study using aerial imagery analytics to quantify the extent and impact of everyday irrigation issues, analyzing over one million irrigated acres across the western U.S. The information was gathered during the 2020 growing season.

“Every grower knows we’re living in an era of increasing variability,” Bourne said. These variables include changing regulations, changing consumer tastes, more unpredictable weather patterns and more. “But what is the impact of everyday irrigation issues on your operation? That couldn’t be answered in the past because existing infrastructure makes these data impossible to know. It’s hard to gather information unless you have people walking the rows or on ATVs, or doing other tasks and keeping an eye out.”

Bourne’s company analyzed nearly one million acres of California farmland. In doing so, they identified, categorized and measured over 30,000 issues – mostly plugs, clogs, leaks, pressure issues and valve issues – and then reviewed these issues with growers.

On average, they found 29.5 irrigation issues per 1,000 crop acres over the course of the season. Bourne noted there was an interesting correlation of issues with geography (mostly the hillier areas). The counties with the highest number of issues were Napa, Yuba and Sonoma, so he said those growers needed to act the fastest.

There were also crop types that had higher numbers of problems than others. Citrus and grape growers saw more than 40 issues per 1,000 acres. Those growing walnuts, tomatoes and almonds all averaged around 30 issues. Pistachio growers had the fewest issues, with just over 10 per 1,000 acres.

“Irrigation issues on average impact yield across operations from 1% to 3%,” Bourne said. “For a 1,000-acre grower, that’s an impact of around $120,000.”

He explained that the goal of aerial and satellite imaging is to help growers get ahead of these issues to lower the amount of loss. The efficiency benefits of quickly detecting and acting on issues include water efficiency, less nitrogen leaching and less CO2 emissions.

Bourne concluded that the study shows significant opportunity for growers to increase farm profits and reduce water use by acting on issues quickly.