Podcast: 09. Nicholaus Benson - Investigating Irrigation
Irrigation is undoubtedly an essential part of many farms. For me as an Ohio farmer, I haven’t had much hands-on experience with irrigation and was excited to chat with Nicholaus Benson of Twin Rivers Ag about his work with irrigation and the tools he uses to aid in making irrigation decisions.
Nicholaus has operated Twin Rivers Ag, a precision ag company, in Lawrenceville, Illinois, with his brother in law and their wives for 5 years. Over the years their business has grown to include irrigation services including the use of Crop Metrics sensors. These sensors are probes that are reading soil moisture at 8.5 and 18.5 inches deep, twice a day.
Crop Metrics’ sensors are measuring available moisture to help determine the ideal water level for each field to ensure that nitrogen and other nutrients are not being washed below the root zone by excess water. The variability in the field will impact the reading, and Nicholaus mentioned that in some cases it makes sense to have more than one probe per field to offset inherent variability. He uses soil maps to determine what the trouble spots are, as in, which parts of the field will get stressed the quickest due to lack of moisture. Each self contained probe has a solar panel, modem and cell signal that sends the information straight to your phone.
“Once guys were able to see on this prairie what we could raise with water, it just kind of became a no-brainer,” said Nicholaus in regards to how growers could determine if irrigation was right for them. “Access to water would be the first determining factor of whether or not irrigation is feasible and the second is how often do you need that [water]?”
“Irrigation is a great equalizer with Mother Nature,” Nicholaus said. “Even on a wet year, you’ll see some benefit from it… but if you plant and get a heavy rain and an inch of crust forms over it, you can put on another .2-.3 to help get that crop through, that helps!”
As you start considering advanced irrigation methods, variable rate water and fertigation come to mind. We talked through making these decisions, and the way it's all connected in a systematic approach. If you are doing variable rate seeding, your variable rate map may align with where you need more or less water as those different areas are often indicating similar patterns throughout the field.
Have you used Crop Metrics sensors? Leave a review here.
Host: Morgan Seger
Guest: Nicholaus Benson of Twin Rivers Ag
Morgan Seger (00:22):
Welcome back to Precision Points, an ag tech podcast. In each episode, we strive to bring you unbiased ag tech information and ideas. And on today's show, we have Nicholaus Benson from Twin Rivers Ag in Lawrenceville, Illinois. Nicholas was referred to me from one of our other guests as a great person to have on to talk through irrigation.
Morgan Seger (00:42):
And that's one thing I've been really interested in, but being a farmer in Western Ohio, I don't have a lot of hands on experience. So, Nicholaus kind of walks us through what growers should be thinking of, if they're trying to decide if irrigation is right for them. How he measures and determines where he needs water, and how much water he needs.
Morgan Seger (01:01):
And also, how you can take your irrigation management to the next level with variable rate irrigation and fertigation, and the impact those decisions can have on your growing crop. I hope you enjoy this interview with Nicholaus Benson.
Morgan Seger (01:14):
Welcome back to Precision Points today on the show I'm joined with Nicholuas Benson from Twin Rivers Ag in Lawrence County, Illinois. Nicholaus, welcome to Precision Points.
Nicholaus Benson (01:25):
Yeah, thank you for having me on.
Morgan Seger (01:29):
I'm excited to get started and chat about what you've been working on this season. I was wondering if you could kind of kick us off and just introduce yourself, tell our audience a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in precision ag.
Nicholaus Benson (01:41):
So, I'm Nicholaus Benson here in Lawrence County, Illinois. We own a small precision ag company called Twin Rivers Ag. We started out as a Beck's Seed dealership five years ago, and then right after that we decided to add some other services where we were just taking essentially what guys needed, or what we were hearing they were needing as far as data management to their precision side, to what they were thinking as far as the nutrient loss, or what their nutrient needs were, and getting more in the weeds with it and doing some things that other guys weren't doing.
Nicholaus Benson (02:30):
We also sit in an area where there's a ton of irrigation, and I have a lot of irrigation myself. So, the rule of thumb was well, when it got dry, you watered. And not all land is created equal, so we wanted to get more in the weeds with the irrigation management side of it as well. So three years ago we became a crop metrics dealer, and we are selling soil probes, and actively working with those and trying to manage data to try to help growers become more efficient on their irrigation practices really.
Morgan Seger (03:00):
Gotcha. Well, I was chatting with a mutual friend, Drew Garretson, and he was actually on back in episode five. And he told me that one person I needed to talk to was you about irrigation, which I was really excited about on our podcast. We're trying to keep the content relevant to the season we're in. So since we're in the growing season, I was excited to have access to someone who knows about irrigation here in Western Ohio.
Morgan Seger (03:24):
There's a few guys that are running pivots, but not very many. So would you mind just kind of talking through what precision irrigation is, and how people are making those decisions?
Nicholaus Benson (03:37):
Sure. So this is really the beginning stages of it. We know all ground has different organic matters in it, correct? And so by nature, some land has more of an ability to hold water than other land does. We wanted to see what was going on underneath the soil, so we started investigating with irrigation probes and setting up probes at certain depths where they could take a reading of the actual moisture content in the soil.
Nicholaus Benson (04:12):
And so, by actively monitoring those and setting your levels of where you want to be, as far as the percentage of water in that soil profile, we can see what's going on below the soil. And taking into account, pressures and humidities and the amount of evaporation with temperatures and wind and stuff. We can try to take a educated guess at when we need to be watering, and if we're watering too much.
Nicholaus Benson (04:38):
And, I was really shocked in the beginning to see some of my land. I always thought I was wondering enough and I wasn't, I was getting behind. And then other places, guys would set out and I would set out, we would just get into a cycle where you start all your irrigations on a Monday, and then you're going to run it again on Friday.
Nicholaus Benson (05:00):
And so, what we learned was on some of the pivots, as the soil types differ, you didn't need to be doing that. There may be some pivots where you can go to every third cycle and be able to water. And so, it's been interesting. It's been eye opening, and we're continuing to learn a lot.
Nicholaus Benson (05:19):
It's by no means perfected, but we currently have 17 probes out on different farms, maybe up to 20 now. And so, we're gathering more data every year. And it's really interesting to see as we move across the States and the area here.
Morgan Seger (05:39):
What type of information are the crop metric sensors giving you? Just the available moisture at a certain depth? What is it telling you?
Nicholaus Benson (05:49):
So the ones we have out this year have sensors at eight and a half inches, and 18 and a half inches. And so, it is telling you, with each rain event, being irrigation or mother nature, how much of a bump you're getting in your soil moisture profile. And then how much you're getting how much you're getting at eight and a half inches, and how much you're getting at 18 and a half inches.
Nicholaus Benson (06:12):
And so the thought being, you don't want to fill that profile full, and then water on top of that, because what are you doing? I mean, guys are spending all this money on putting nitrogen and all your other nutrients out there for your crop. You don't want to drive it down through that soil profile where the crop can't get to it.
Nicholaus Benson (06:29):
So, the goal here is to keep that in an optimal range. You don't want to be too full, and you obviously don't want to be too minimal, as you hurt your crops. So, the things that the probes are showing you, it's essentially just measuring percentage of water in that soil profile at those levels, and then determining what is the ideal percentage of water for that crop growing there.
Morgan Seger (06:56):
Gotcha. And then like you said, obviously all the soil has different organic matter and other characteristics. How do you determine where in your field to put those probes?
Nicholaus Benson (07:09):
Like I said, my brother-in-law, he is the agronomist on this, and I am the Guinea pig in this whole deal, but I'm learning a lot as we go. That's a good question, because a lot of fields aren't the same. We're essentially using soil type maps, and determining where are our trouble spots. So, what is essentially going to hurt for water first? That's what we're after.
Nicholaus Benson (07:34):
And then, that's really an ideal spot to monitor with your [inaudible 00:07:40]. At the same time, we know that in the same field there may be another place that holds a lot more water. So you need to take that into consideration. As you place your probe, if you're placing it in some place that [inaudible 00:07:54] water really fast, or it's very arid, Sandy, Rocky, we live on a Prairie here that has a lot of sand and gravel in it.
Nicholaus Benson (08:02):
And so, therefore, you need to take into consideration where your heavier type soils are. And it may be a situation where you're slowing down on top of your ridges, and you're speeding up as you go over your heavier soils. Your darker soils with more organic matter, you just don't need that much water. Its ability to hold water is so much greater. And I didn't realize how much greater it was until we started doing this.
Morgan Seger (08:28):
So how do those sensors report that information back to you? Does it come to you on your phone or do you have to go out to the field to read them?
Nicholaus Benson (08:38):
No. So, they each have a little solar panel and a modem, and they have a cell signal that they send. They measure twice a day, report to you twice a day, and you watched all the crop X app, and look and see. You know, And it's not great, sometimes that's maybe not quite enough data. But at the same time, you don't want to be overwhelmed. You'll want to be looking at it every hour, [inaudible 00:09:11]. If you can look twice a day, that seems pretty good. They're all self contained, so it seems to work pretty well like that.
Morgan Seger (09:20):
Gotcha. So when you are irrigating, are you running anything other than water through your pivots?
Nicholaus Benson (09:28):
Sometimes we are. Several people that have vegetables in the area do. There is quite a bit of fertigation that happens here. I myself do a little bit every year, I haven't yet this year. I know some guys are big into it. So yeah, there's several guys that will make a nitrogen application through the system, or some of the micros. A lot of sulfur or boron, manganese, copper, stuff like that gets applied through systems.
Nicholaus Benson (09:59):
So yeah, that happens. And when that happens, you kind of take what you're recording with the soil probe out, because you're just really out there to make your fertilizer applications. So, at the same time, yeah, we're doing that.
Morgan Seger (10:14):
Okay. I was wondering about that, and if anyone's doing variable rate water, if that would impact the nutrients and stuff. Or, which would be the deciding factor if you were looking for a certain rate of nutrients, or if you were looking for a certain amount of water to carry it?
Nicholaus Benson (10:33):
I have a couple systems that are capable of variable rate, and the places that they are capable of it, I really need to be doing more with it. And that is on the agenda. That is something we're just now starting to get to, now that we're learning about the way moisture moves and how it's used, and the capacity for the soil to hold.
Nicholaus Benson (10:59):
The variable rate side would just be really for water application, I would think. If you wanted to do it for the nutrient side, maybe there would be a lot of variables involved there. It could be done, but really the variable rate would be ideal for some of these fields, and where the soil profile changes so much within a 160 acre circle. So, that application would be better there.
Morgan Seger (11:25):
Now, do you guys do any variable rate seeding or planting?
Nicholaus Benson (11:30):
Oh, yes. Sure.
Morgan Seger (11:30):
So do you change your water at all based off of how many plants, or is it mostly based off of the soil moisture holding capacity?
Nicholaus Benson (11:37):
Well like I said, we're just now starting to do that. In theory, the places that you are planning a heavier population, say corn for instance, would be in your heavier soil. So you would think, well, there's more corn there, it may need more water. Well at the same time, there's more corn there because that soil is able to support that more corn.
Nicholaus Benson (12:00):
So, they would probably line up some, but like I said, we have not done that for sure. There may be some guys out there that's doing that, but it would line up just because of the way the field was set up. It wouldn't necessarily line up because your planning for that application, with your irrigation, if you write a prescription for it.
Morgan Seger (12:23):
Gotcha. So if a grower's listening to this who has no irrigation, but has been on the fence about whether or not to make the decision, can you remember back to what some of the key drivers were for you guys when you were starting and trying to get this figured out, whether or not it was a good fit? Or has it just always been something you've done?
Nicholaus Benson (12:45):
Whenever I was growing up, irrigation was just starting to get pretty popular in the area. There was still a lot of the old hose drags. There were center pivots, but there weren't nearly as many as there are today, by no means. And so, once guys were able to see, on this Prairie, what you could raise with water, then it just kind of became a no brainer.
Nicholaus Benson (13:08):
And so, there became to be irrigations popping up everywhere. But like I said, whenever I say irrigations are popping up everywhere, they're everywhere. So, not all types of soil is the same. If I was to talk to a guy that may be on the fence, I would ask him, "Well, out of 10 years, how many years is lack of water a real issue for you?"
Nicholaus Benson (13:28):
And I've never really sat down and thought about it, but if it's more than half the years that water becomes an issue for you ... Another big problem is a lot of guys don't have access to water. So, we're lucky here. We sit on top of a giant aquifer that goes up and down with the river.
Nicholaus Benson (13:52):
You don't have to go very far in our area, maybe 10 miles, you can't get any water. I mean, you can drill a 200 foot well and barely get enough to run a house. So the access to water, I would say would be the first determining factor, or whether or not irrigation is seasonable.
Nicholaus Benson (14:09):
And then the second would be, how often do you need that? I mean, some guys in our area need [inaudible 00:14:17] worse than they need irrigation. So there's several factors to figure out, the main one being do you have access to water?
Morgan Seger (14:28):
Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Kind of start with the basics there.
Nicholaus Benson (14:32):
Morgan Seger (14:34):
Gotcha. And then from there, I mean, you've seen enough of a yield increase to where growers would be able to do a little bit of research and pencil out how long it would take for them to get a return on their investment.
Nicholaus Benson (14:46):
Oh yeah. For sure. Like I said, in our area there's about a four or five county area here along the Wabash River in Illinois and Indiana, where it's pretty much a no brainer. 2012, we had dry land corn where we didn't have irrigation, [inaudible 00:15:09] it down by the 4th of July. Then we had the field right next to it that was irrigated, where we could still pull 180 to 200 bushels to the acre.
Nicholaus Benson (15:21):
Now, that doesn't come without a cost, but the crop greatly outweighs the cost in a case like that. So, it's just like anything with farming. You've got to look at your investments and where you want to spend your money and how you want to do it.
Nicholaus Benson (15:41):
And if you are irrigating, if you want to expand, there's so many more things that are available today that there weren't five, 10 years ago. There's a lot of control programs where you do it all from your phone. I mean, you can watch, monitor position, start, stop, speed up, slow down.
Nicholaus Benson (15:59):
And if it's something like that that you can do, sometimes some of those things make sense. And then obviously, sometimes it's just like, you've only got so much bandwidth, and how much of the band do you want to spend on irrigation? It's like anything else.
Morgan Seger (16:17):
Right. So do you run yours from your phone?
Nicholaus Benson (16:20):
I have five systems that I have valet trackers on that I can start and start, stop, change speed, and monitor position with, from my phone. Yes.
Morgan Seger (16:33):
Okay. And then, do you ever do yield checks with your dry corners versus the stuff that you have underwater?
Nicholaus Benson (16:41):
Oh, sure. Yeah, all the time. In fact, a lot of guys plant their dry corners to different crops because they just know that maybe a bean or sorghum is going to hold up better than a corn crop without the extra water. And in some cases where it's highly intensive, like with vegetables and stuff, the guys they'll just leave the dry corners out. I mean, those will just be storage for equipment and everything else. So yeah, for sure. You see that yield difference every year.
Morgan Seger (17:17):
So generally speaking, what is maintenance like for your pivots? Is there much you have to do for upkeep?
Nicholaus Benson (17:26):
Yeah, I mean it's a system that sits out there all year. Well, it runs three months out of a year. It sits in the weather. And you also have things from nature. You have squirrels, chipmunks, and all that good stuff. And then depending on whether you have hydraulic systems or electric systems.
Nicholaus Benson (17:50):
With your hydraulic systems, you have a lot of lines, gearboxes and stuff. Even the electric systems on the drives still have gears and gearboxes and oils, and then even when it's running, so it's running in water. So I mean, water by nature is corrosive. There's quite a bit of maintenance with them, things that need to be done.
Nicholaus Benson (18:13):
And I, myself am not probably the first person and the best person to tell you about maintenance of irrigations, because it's like anything else, it's out of sight out of mind. So when you get out there to it and you really need it, that seems to be when you take the most care of it.
Nicholaus Benson (18:26):
And so, we spend that first week getting them to go, and then maybe a day on the system and it needs this, this and this. And then once you get it going good, it's going. But there is, there's a lot of changing of tires and, just your typical machinery that anything else, you would have wear and tear and flat tires and stuff like that.
Morgan Seger (18:46):
Sure. Well, I can imagine a lot of people started looking really heavily into this after 2012. I know for us on our farm, our beans out yielded our corn, which is never a good thing. But have you seen an impact on some of the wetter years too? Cause it seems like sometimes when we have these wet Springs, it doesn't have to turn off to a drought before we start seeing what appears to be moisture stress on our crop. So, even when you have wetter years, are you still finding that you're running it?
Nicholaus Benson (19:19):
Yeah, especially maybe in the Spring, because during planting on a West spring, some of our soil conditions aren't the best. And so you may have some where the surface is not great. And when you're wanting that rain to try to get it up, cause you didn't get your crop in or you didn't get your seed in deep enough or something, that irrigation is a great equalizer for mother nature to make.
Nicholaus Benson (19:44):
So even on a wet year, you'll still see some benefit from it. Not always in that application of helping get crops up, but [inaudible 00:19:54], if you plant and you get a heavy rain and then you have an inch of crust form over it, you can put on another two or three tents to help get that crop through. That helps.
Nicholaus Benson (20:07):
There's rarely a time on some of this really arid land that we don't run these irrigations a little bit anyway. So yeah, even in a wet year, you'll see the benefit of an irrigation.
Morgan Seger (20:18):
Gotcha. Well, thanks for taking time to answer my irrigation questions. Is there anything else that you are exploring or working on this summer that you want to share?
Nicholaus Benson (20:33):
Not other than what we've covered. We just continue to watch water usage, and just try to learn about when we need to be irrigating and when we don't. And trying to keep all that nutrient in that profile for that plant, just to try to make us more efficient really. That's really the biggest part of what we're working on right now.
Nicholaus Benson (20:58):
And we are working on trying to figure out a way to maybe write a prescription for an irrigation, to speed up and slow down on the different types of the field. We haven't done that yet, but that's the goal anyway. That's kind of what we're working towards.
Morgan Seger (21:21):
Gotcha. Well, I can't wait to see what you come up with. I think this is all is so fascinating. And thank you again for answering my questions. If someone wanted to follow along with what you and your brother in law are working on, where would you suggest they go to, to kind of look you up or follow along?
Nicholaus Benson (21:37):
They can find us at Twin Rivers Precision Ag on Twitter. That's a good place, we like to post a lot of the stuff we're doing there, and look it up. And also the same handle on Instagram, there's some of that there. And you can follow Sean. Sean makes some posts. He's my brother-in-law. Sean D [inaudible 00:22:00] on Twitter also.
Morgan Seger (22:02):
Okay. And we'll link out to that in the show notes. So if anyone wants to follow along, they can find it there.
Nicholaus Benson (22:07):
Morgan Seger (22:08):
Awesome. Well, thank you so much for taking time today. I appreciate it.
Nicholaus Benson (22:12):
All right. Thank you.
Host: Morgan Seger
Morgan Seger spent ten years working with ag retail, specifically in ag tech. She lives and farms in western Ohio, where she has four children with her husband Ben. Morgan, has her own blog called Heart and Soil where she talks about her experience farming, gardening, and raising her family.
Guest: Nicholaus Benson
Located in southeastern Illinois, in the county of Lawrence, Nicholaus lives between the Embarras and Wabash Rivers. Nicholaus farms with his wife Ashley, brother and sister-in-law Sean and Sarah Nettleton. They also own and operate Twin Rivers Ag where they attempt to literally learn as they grow and help fellow farmers be more productive and passionate in an ever changing environment. From nutrition management to soil and tissue samples to seed sales to moisture probes Twin Rivers Ag covers all bases. In addition Nicholaus owns and operates a 3000 acre grain farm with his wife and father and a small cow/calf operation selling freezer beef locally.