Hidden water drives demand for soil probe

Hidden water drives demand for soil probe

When Ryan Hutchison installed his first Pessl weather station 24 years ago, he began to understand the potential benefits in knowing how much moisture was available to grow a crop.

Hutchison, integrated solutions manager for South Country John Deere in Regina, and his team have installed about 1,000 probes since then. At first he sold the John Deere probe and software, then added Pessl Instruments from Austria.

He then turned his attentions to creating software that made better use of the data extracted from one metre down into Canadian prairie soil.

Crop Intelligence is the name the team chose for the Saskatchewan-born soil moisture model.

“On the Prairies, water is a major yield-limiting factor. Crop Intelligence is an app that collects and interprets soil moisture data to model water driven yield potential in dryland farming,” Hutchison said in a phone interview.

“We at South Country developed the Crop Intelligence software. It’s not exclusively John Deere. We have incorporated four different weather station companies. We primarily use the John Deere moisture probe, which is manufactured by Deere, but we have also integrated the Sentek probe.”

Hutchison said Crop Intelligence uses mainly the Deere probe, a capacitance sensor, which he said is 25-year-old technology. When he began working with probes and their required software, he sold a lot of John Deere probes, while demonstrating the value of deep moisture data to farmers. Many of the growers still have their original hardware they bought back in 2014.

“Our Crop Intelligence network sold over 500 Pessl and John Deere weather stations in 2018 alone. We introduced Pessl to Western Canada in volume. I have a framed picture in my office from 24 years ago. It shows us installing our first Pessl station. It was a Metos Compact Pessl weather station in southern Alberta. If it wasn’t for what we did decades ago, Metos wouldn’t be in Canada today.”

He said that Deere once had a division called John Deere Water, designed to serve irrigation farmers. They built capacitance soil moisture probes for depths of a half-metre, one-metre and one for 1.5 metres.

“We still prefer the Deere probe because of serviceability. This is the only probe you can open up to service. Everything else on the market is a self-contained sealed unit. If it stops working, you throw it away. That can be a $1,000 down the drain.

“Of the 1,000 probes we have in the ground now, 90 percent are John Deere. I think about 40 percent of the weather stations are John Deere, 40 percent are Pessl and the balance are from a new partner, Realm5 in Nebraska.

“But the probe itself is only a fraction of the story. We developed Crop Intelligence because of the volume of data farmers and agronomists could use to make decisions. We wanted to help them do that proactively in-season.”

This photo hanging in Ryan Hutchinson’s office shows him installing his first Pessl station 24 years ago. Hutchison has been at the forefront of data collection technology since then. | South Country Equipment photo

He said they took it to market in 2017 and it’s been working well since then.

Crop Intelligence weather stations measure environmental data including precipitation, soil moisture, leaf wetness, temperature, relative humidity, wind and growing degree days.

The app factors in crop available moisture, accumulative rainfall and expected precipitation to model yield potential throughout the season. Developing a program like this is not the sort of accomplishment a person would expect from an equipment dealer.

“We didn’t have all the expertise in-house, but I would say the passion and the desire to get people to understand the data and use the data, that’s all in-house for sure. As for the software, I’d say about 90 percent was created in-house.

“Our owners here and my agronomy partner and our team members all decided to invest in building this pro-active insight on how to use the data we give them in season. It’s not about the hardware anymore. It’s about practical knowledge.”

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