Case Study: Black Gold Farm

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By Eric Halverson, VP of Technology, Black Gold Farms,
Jason Gross, Systems Manager, Black Gold Farms
and Jeff Diebert, Project Manager, McCrometer CONNECT, McCrometer, Inc.

Remote Monitoring Of Pivot Irrigation System Improves Black Gold Farms Yield, Quality and Efficiency

Pivot Monitoring Station

Black Gold Farms is a multi-generation, family owned farming organization that began in North Dakota’s Red River Valley more than 80 years ago. It evolved into a global potato production, sales and service company and industry leader. In combination with its own farms and a network of contracted growers across the USA, Black Gold has 20,000 acres in production and is the nation’s largest supplier of chip potatoes.
Black Gold Farms actively practices economic, social and environmental sustainability. Keys to their success are innovative approaches, best management practices and implementation of advanced technologies. Supporting best irrigation practice, Black Gold utilizes pivot irrigation technology to conserve water, reduce costs and improve product quality.

 Pivot Monitoring GraphChallenge: While there are many environmental, operational and cost advantages to pivot irrigation, the pivot hardware alone cannot achieve all of the potential benefits. The necessity of rotating crops each season brings a set of new challenges to delivering consistent crop quality and yields. Not only are farm managers faced with managing the different variables of soil types and microclimates unique to each new field site each year, the pivot equipment used on these leased lands also covers a broad spectrum of size, brand and performance capability. This is a significant challenge for a farm manager operating 10-50 widely separated fields each season.

Black Gold Farms began looking for ways to increase the efficiency and intelligence of their pivot irrigation systems. They wanted to improve pivot performance, improve irrigation scheduling, and minimize the time and effort to get the job done. To achieve this they wanted a wireless monitoring and control system that could:

Soil Moisture Station

• Monitor pivot speed, direction and pressure;
• Monitor weather and calculate ETo;
• Monitor soil moisture at multiple depths of 24 and 36 inches;
• Monitor the quantity of irrigation applied;
• Easily be set up each season on a wide range of pivots, in various soil types and conditions;
• Be remotely accessed by the head office as well as by all of the farm managers.

Black Gold Farms found their solution with McCrometer CONNECT’s product line of wireless monitoring for irrigation management. With over 35 years of industry experience, McCrometer CONNECT’s complete line of wireless systems and sensors offers multiple smart irrigation turn-key solutions including: satellite, cell and radio communications to get crop data back to the office or other locations via the Internet.

The durable solar power based systems provide irrigators with a total system solution from a single trusted irrigation industry specialist.
In 2008 Black Gold installed a pilot radio system with 10 monitoring stations in Live Oak, Florida. The success in Florida was followed by the installation of 25 soil moisture and pivot monitoring stations in Pearsall, Texas. Black Gold rolled the system out to 6 additional farms in 2010 and one more in 2011 and now operates more than 275 wireless monitoring stations across 10 states.

Pivot Monitoring Stations:
Pivot monitoring stations ensure that each irrigation pivot is operating properly and moving in the correct direction with a water pressure sensor and a compass sensor. It can be a significant problem if a pivot gets stuck and keeps irrigating in the same position. Farm managers and supervisors can:
See the status of every pivot on their smart phone, tablet or PC at any time;
Receive instant warnings via SMS or VOIP if the pivot stops moving forward while the pivot is still running.

A digital compass and a pressure sensor are used to monitor the operation of the pivot. The compass is pointed in-line with the center pivot arm so the position is easily displayed as an angle from 0-359 degrees. North is represented by 0 degrees.
The blue line in this graph shows the direction the center pivot arm is moving. The red bars plotted below that show the operating pressure. When the pivot is not operating the blue pivot direction line is horizontal and the pressure is 0 PSI (see point A). When the pivot is started the pressure is displayed and the blue line showing the location increases or decreases (see point B). If the pivot is rotating clock-wise the pivot location increases (see point C). Conversely, if the pivot rotates counter-clockwise the numbers decrease. When the pivot arm reaches the 359 degree point it then resets to 0 (see point D).

Pivot operation and multiple rotations can be easily viewed on this X-Y style graph.
Each farm has from 10 to 35 McCrometer CONNECT pivot monitoring stations with over 215 pivot monitoring stations in the Black Gold network. Each of the pivot monitoring stations is composed of an A753 addWAVE long range UHF radio-data logger, solar panel, digital compass, and pressure sensor. The system mounts easily in minutes on any size/brand pivot. The A753 can be used as a repeater for other field stations which allows Black Gold to quickly re-deploy their network to the new field each year.

Soil Moisture Field Site Stations:
Soil moisture field stations are used at 10 of the farms (See Figure: 3). They monitor each irrigation site and the moisture content at depths down to 24” or 36”. Managers can clearly see:

• Quantity of each irrigation;
• Depth of irrigation;
• Root activity at each depth.

Farm managers can then adapt and change the pivot irrigation schedule, application rate, or other operations as needed.

Each of the farms in the Black Gold network currently has 5 to 10 McCrometer CONNECT soil moisture monitoring stations. The farms use the McCrometer CONNECT A723 addIT Series 4 UHF short-range radios for soil moisture stations. These are deployed under the pivot and include the A723 radio, solar panel, irrigation rain gauge, and a soil moisture probe with a sensor every 4 inches. These short range radio-data loggers report directly to the A753 long range radios, which in turn report the data to the base station at the farm.

Soil Moisture GraphThis graph shows data from a 24 inch soil moisture probe with sensors every 4 inches (blue toned lines). The data display is similar to a soil profile with the 4 inch sensor at the top and each subsequent sensor below. If the moisture content from irrigation or rainfall increases, then the values increase. Conversely, as moisture is used by the crop or lost to evaporation then the values decrease. This allows Black Gold managers to easily monitor the activity at each depth.

Rainfall and irrigation (green bars) are measured using an irrigation rain gauge mounted with the soil moisture probe on a field station located under the pivot. This data is overlaid with the soil moisture data to display the effects of each irrigation/rainfall event.
The first irrigation event applied about 0.5 inch of water (see point A). That quantity of water clearly reached the 4, 8, and 12 inch depths and showed a small influence at 16 inches.
3 days later the second irrigation event applied another 0.5 inch of water (see point B). The result was similar to the first event at each of the 4, 8, 12, and 16 inch depths.
About 3 days later a rainfall event occurred (see point C). With a recorded total of just over 1.5 inches, strong moisture activity can be seen at each depth down to 24 inches.
Crop water use at each level can be observed at each depth. Typically the most use occurs from mid-morning through early evening. Then use drops off from early evening until the next morning, producing the “stair step” pattern. This pattern can clearly be seen at the 4 and 8 inch depths (see point D) which is typical for the stage of plant development early on in the season.
The bottom four sensors show a slight decline but this is mostly due to drainage from the rainfall event.

There are only a few locations where Black Gold needs to monitor sites outside their McCrometer CONNECT Adcon UHF radio network. In these locations Black Gold simply uses the A753 addWAVE GPRS model data logger and data is delivered via a cellular connection rather than a UHF radio connection.

Weather Monitoring Stations:
Similar to soil moisture stations, Black Gold uses A723 addIT Series 4 radio-data loggers to monitor weather. Each farm has a weather station to document regional conditions. They monitor a full range of weather parameters including:

  • Temperature
  • Relative humidity
  • Wind speed and direction
  • Solar radiation
  • Precipitation
  • Leaf wetness

Black Gold uses these weather parameters to calculate:

  • Wet bulb temperature
  • Dew point temperature
  • Degree days
  • ETo evapotranspiration
  • Standard climatic information, including min./max./avg. temperature and seasonal rainfall

Local Base Stations/Centralized addVANTAGE Professional SCADA Server:
Each of Black Gold’s managed 10 farms has a McCrometer CONNECT base station located in the farm office. Each base station supports 10 to 50 remote telemetry units (RTU’s), depending on the individual farm. The basic base station components at each farm include an A850 Telemetry Gateway and A440 wireless modem. The A850 gateway is responsible for controlling all communication in the network. The A440 Wireless modem is the UHF mouth and ears of the A850. This device sends and receives the A850 commands out through the local radio network. The A850 Gateway is a data server and accumulates all data from the field stations. It can hold at least two weeks of data for up to 1000 field stations.

The addVANTAGE Professional SCADA software is a centralized server which runs at the Black Gold corporate office in Grand Forks, ND. It stores, processes and displays the data collected from the A850 Gateway at each farm. It is fully web based, includes an integrated Oracle® standard edition database, can be scaled to support thousands of stations and users, and comes with a large number of useful extensions. Black Gold Farms also used the McCrometer CONNECT addUPI third-party data interface to design their own web and map based interface to share pivot information with all field staff. The reports are generated internally to monitor field applications for major food processors and chip snack companies.

Black Gold Designed Pivot Display

  • The blue pin shows the pivot center
  • The blue area represents the last sector the pivot arm has passed over
  • Managers can select the period of time the sector represents
  • Period selection options are 24 hours, 48 hours, and 7 days
  • The red pin designates a soil moisture station.

Accurate data gathered 24/7 by McCrometer CONNECT’s versatile line of wireless systems and sensors allows Black Gold Farm managers to make informed decisions and take action when needed to insure smooth irrigation operations.
Additionally, pivot monitoring with critical alerts alleviates the problems of stuck pivots and related loss of time, money and crop. Through monitoring soil moisture in the field, pivot performance can be accurately assessed and addressed for optimal efficiency. Not only do each of Black Gold’s 10 Farm sites in 10 states (FL, GA, IN, MI, MO, NC, ND, MD, LA and TX) benefit from McCrometer CONNECT’s site specific telemetry solutions, the web-accessible data gives Central Management informed knowledge of all operations for better strategic planning and implementation of improved irrigation practices.

As Eric Halverson, VP of Technology at Black Gold explained, “The radio network has allowed us to be more efficient operating our irrigation systems, allowing us to save man hours and more importantly do a better job. Data collection is also the foundation of our sustainability program; the McCrometer CONNECT system helps us collect data quickly and accurately.”

McCrometer CONNECT’s systems are scalable and can easily be expanded to accommodate Black Gold Farms future growth and needs. A shared commitment to providing highest quality, advanced products and sustainable solutions makes Black Gold Farms and McCrometer CONNECT winning partners.