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Research Highlights

Research Highlights
SmartIrrigation App Updates Driven by Farmer Feedback

The new CropFit app will combine the SmartIrrigation apps for soybeans, cotton, corn and peanuts. It will automatically extract field soil types based on boundaries, and soil types will be used to estimate the plant available water holding capacity of the field’s soil.

By Laura Temple

The SmartIrrigation Soybean app uses a model that estimates soil moisture available to the crop based on factors including soil type, irrigation, plant growth state, precipitation and other weather parameters. The free app was developed primarily for Southern farmers, using checkoff funding from the Georgia Soybean Commodity Commission and the Southern Soybean Research Program (SSRP).

The SmartIrrigation Soybean app was released in 2019, and it currently has more than 60 users and over 160 registered fields. The SmartIrrigation Cotton app was released in 2014, and it has more than 600 users and over 1,960 registered fields. A corn app is currently in beta testing, and it will be released in early 2022.

“We continue to make improvements to these apps, all driven by grower feedback,” says Dr. George Vellidis, professor and researcher at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “All of the updates we have made in the past 18 months are based on requests from farmers. We incorporate those changes into all three row crop apps. Our goal is to continue to make the SmartIrrigation suite more useful and efficient for scheduling irrigation and maintaining records.”

He notes that their research shows the app can be as effective as soil moisture sensors for scheduling irrigation without overwatering or stressing the crop. The app pulls data from a combination of information from the user at set-up and real-time weather data sources to calculate soil moisture.

Improving Accuracy and Ease of Use

The accuracy of the model depends on the quality of input data. For example, “local” weather data may be pulled from a weather station several miles away. Farmers know that weather, especially rainfall from small pop-up showers or thunderstorms, can vary dramatically within short distances.

The SmartIrrigation apps now can be synced with automated rain gauges from four manufacturers: national companies Davis and Onset, European-based Pessi, and Trellis, a start-up based in Georgia. For farmers that invest in this technology, the SmartIrrigation app pulls their data directly from the company website. A single log-in to the company website provides the app access to the rain data, without the need for the app to store password information.

“In response to farmers noting that during planting, they were often too busy to set up fields in the app to start recording soil moisture conditions, the app now allows fields to be set up retroactively,” Vellidis adds. “When they have time, farmers can drop pins on their fields and backdate it to planting. The app will look up local weather data to track soil moisture since that point. Irrigation can be added retroactively, as well.”

For improved scheduling, the app now can show the local weather forecast for the fields, so that farmers don’t have to switch between SmartIrrigation and their weather app. And, for recordkeeping purposes, a download function will email a spreadsheet with daily soil moisture and irrigation records to farmers all the way back to planting.

“Some state and federal cost-share programs, like those offered by NRCS that support the purchase of weather stations and similar technologies, require documentation that the equipment was used to improve irrigation management,” Vellidis says. “The spreadsheet that the apps generate can be used for this purpose.”

Future Updates Result of Leveraging Checkoff

The soy checkoff was instrumental in the initial development and improvement of this app, but Vellidis is now leveraging that investment. In 2021, he received a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) grant to continue improving the SmartIrrigation apps. This grant will also be used to encourage adoption of the app as an irrigation management tool.

“Receiving this grant would not have been possible without the initial soy checkoff support,” he says. “And, this grant was able to replace the need for soy checkoff funding. That increases the value farmers are getting from their checkoff investment.”

The next steps for SmartIrrigation include combining the row crop apps into a single app, improving convenience for farmers as they monitor all their crops and schedule irrigation. The new CropFit app will integrate the soybean, cotton and corn apps with a new peanut app.

Another feature being tested for the new combined app is connecting to the NRCS soil database. Currently farmers have the option of just seven soil types to describe a field. With this improvement, they can set the boundaries of a field, and the app will automatically pull soil type data from the official maps. Those soil types will be used to estimate the plant-available water holding capacity of the field, which in turn impacts irrigation scheduling.

Vellidis continues to conduct field trials to learn how the app and irrigation should treat different maturity groups.

“We’ve had rain throughout the 2021 season at our trial locations, so we won’t have good data to work with this year,” he explains. “We plan to continue this trial long-term, and we will incorporate what we learn into the model once we establish and confirm how maturity group impacts water needs.”

Though these improvements are still a couple years away from release, Vellidis notes that they will continue to enhance the value of the app for improving water management. The current version is available for both Android and iOS platforms from www.smartirrigationapps.org or App Store or Google Play.

This project was funded by the soybean checkoff. To find research related to this research highlight or to see other checkoff research projects, please visit the National Soybean Checkoff Research Database.