Precision Profile: Eliminating Emotion from Moisture Management with Data-Driven Decisions
Updated: May 20
Name: Brandon Hunnicutt
Farm: Hunnicutt Farms
Location: Giltner, Neb.
Size: 2,400 acres (10% in organic production)
Crops Grown: Corn, Soybeans, Popcorn, Seed Corn
Precision Pain Point: How to save money and water without sacrificing yield on irrigated fields.
Water is an increasingly valuable commodity for farmers, especially as annual rain events become more inconsistent and unpredictable. Banking on a timely or even a consistent pattern of precipitation, isn’t a risk Nebraska farmer Brandon Hunnicutt, can afford to take on the family’s 2,400-acre primarily corn and soybean operation.
With the majority of acreage under 19 Valley Irrigation center pivots, Hunnicutt, who farms with his brother, Zach, and their father, Daryl, has progressively adopted cost-saving moisture sensing technology for more than 15 years. The ongoing investment has improved water conservation and shifted the family’s mindset with irrigation management.
“We wanted to try and eliminate our emotional tie to water and not let the elements dictate our decisions. What is the soil telling us it needs?,” Hunnicutt says. “We’ve been able to save 2-5 inches a year in applied water and gotten to the point where we’re annually saving $20-$25 per acre in irrigation costs; without sacrificing yield.”
The Hunnicutts started out using Watermark soil moisture sensors, 1-3-foot probes placed in the field, which were affordable tools to help establish a baseline for precision irrigation management by tracking soil moisture content in select areas of the field.
Hunnicutt acknowledges that some of the early returns contradicted instinct, but, as they replicated readings across the farm, the numbers added up.
“We knew we were probably over-applying water in some areas and potentially under-applying in others,” he says. “What we figured out with the sensors was that it could be 100 degrees out in the field when we probed the soil by hand, and even though logic told us we should be watering, the sensor data told us the soil was holding enough moisture.”
In 2012, prolonged drought impacted most of the country’s crop production, but Hunnicutt attributes their early investment in moisture sensing technology with helping the farm achieve 240-bushel irrigated corn on about 12 inches of strategically applied water that year.
The more recent addition of Valley’s Aqua Trac Pro pivot monitoring system and a gradual transition to digital capacitance probes in almost every field further contributed to a 2-5-inch reduction in irrigated water application, Hunnicutt says.
“So, to this point, we’ve seen cost savings, water savings and a positive environmental impact because we’ve reduced the potential of nutrient loss through water runoff,” Hunnicutt says. “Now we’re moving into the next phase to see how we can use moisture sensing technology as multi-faceted tools.”
Drop In the Bucket
In 2020, Hunnicutt added a pair of Autonomous Pivot systems - robotic, artificial intelligence-enhanced tools that mount to pivots and utilize ground-penetrating radar and cameras to collect soil moisture and crop health data.
“The big thing for us was instead of getting that one data point where the capacitance probe was located, we were now getting 200-300 data points as the pivot rotated around the field and a camera on top taking pictures,” Hunnicutt says.
Seeing enough potential, the operation ran 10 Autonomous Pivot systems in 2021. But a severe windstorm that swept through the area in June, damaged half of the pivots with the sensing technology, which limited the scope of collected data.
However, Hunnicutt says he was still able to make a key discovery. “We saw some interesting variations in yield at the end of the year in some of those fields affected by the wind storm where we couldn’t water,” he says.
That prompted the Hunnicutts to rethink their irrigation strategy, using sensing technology not just to eliminate passes in the field, and measure moisture in the soil, but also to determine the most ideal time of day to irrigate.
“If we’re applying 8 inches per year through the pivot, we may still apply the same amount, but find that we need to be doing it at completely different times,” Hunnicutt says.
But he says the next frontier with irrigation sensing could be even more impactful. Autonomous Pivot is developing its sensors to include nitrogen monitoring and insect recognition - capabilities Hunnicutt says could be “game-changing.”
“We’re excited about the potential of developing different layers of data with sensing tools that will extend beyond our irrigation management,” he says. “It’s about making better decisions based on numbers and not emotions.”
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