Ongoing drought conditions and water management needs jumpstart an emerging precision market.

Jack Zemlicka, Technology Editor

Last year, drought conditions took their toll on much of the U.S. and the latest snapshot doesn’t paint a pretty moisture picture for the country’s heartland. According to the recent U.S. Drought Monitor map, 48% of the country remains in moderate or worse drought conditions.

Nebraska is among the states still battling severe to extreme drought and many farmers there depend on irrigation to nurture their crops. This combination is driving interest in precision moisture probes as a way to monitor and conserve water, according to Kyle McClary, precision farming consultant with Green Line Equipment in Grand Island, Neb.

“We’re starting to see these products really take off because we’ve got a lot of irrigation here and water usage is a big issue farmers deal with,” he says. “In dry years like last year, once you used up the water you had, that was it. You can’t get any more.”

Green Line, a John Deere dealership, recently began selling the manufacturer’s Field Connect soil moisture monitoring systems. The product takes in-field moisture readings with sensors below the soil and then transmits the data to a web-based interface, which farmers can access on their computer or mobile device.

Kyle McClary, precision farming consultant at Green Line Equipment in Grand Island, Neb., talks about the emerging customer interest, and sales opportunities, with soil moisture probe technology as an irrigation management tool.

The technology lets farmers to pinpoint areas that need more or less moisture, rather than just evenly applying and potentially wasting valuable water.

Dealership owner Russ Rerucha says the store dabbled in moisture sensors last year, but with the ongoing drought, decided to make more of a sales push in 2013.

“Last year, farmers started the pivots in May and didn’t shut them off until September. They literally ran 24/7,” he says. “If they had a probe to measure that ground, they probably could have saved time and money. It’s still a pretty new concept, but they’ve been easier to sell this year because of what we went through last year.”

Once farmers finish with planting, McClary says he expects they will turn their focus toward water management and look for ways to make every drop count in the field, especially in parts of the state that are regulated.

His approach to selling the moisture sensor systems is to show customers how their investment can payoff not only in water savings, but also through reductions in electricity, fuel and input costs.

“We don’t have an agronomist on staff, so if a customer works with their own, we set up everything else for about $2,000,” McClary says. “What we’ve seen is that in one pivot pass, customers can save $5,000 to $10,000 in costs because they’re more precise with water application and not having to go through the field as often.

“It’s a small investment with a big return, especially in areas where there are water restrictions.”

Other dealers in south central and western Nebraska have made precision moisture sensing systems more of a priority in recent years, McClary says, based on a growing interest by farmers. This year, he’s expecting to sell 10 to 15 probes as a starting point.

“This is our first year with them and my first year with them, but I’m looking to double and triple sales in the next 3 years,” McClary says. “I see nothing but growth to the point where customers will have one probe per field, especially if we have another dry year.”