Field level weather stations provide retailers and producers with accurate data to help with their crop-planning decisions.

Weather stations provide retailers with highly localized data to help decision-making.

Weather stations have been popping up all over Western Canada in recent years. Many retailers, like Parrish & Heimbecker’s (P&H) Quill Lake elevator location, are using the stations to help their customers with their application and cropping decisions.

“Because we have a weather station right here at the elevator that records data accurately, it’s not a guesstimate. It’s real data – we’re not guessing,” says Louise Carduner, customer service representative of crop inputs at P&H Quill Lake. “Our weather right here at the elevator is the farmer’s weather. We’re not using some idea of what it might be or using something that’s reporting from Humboldt (60 km away). The weather we’re telling the farmers about is actually the weather that’s right here, on this road, on this land.

“Our season is just starting, but we’re already using it for relative humidity, and we’ll definitely be using it for wind speed for spraying,” she says. Carduner is also using the data to guide her customers through decisions on seeding, fungicide application and when certain chemicals can be applied to the crops.

Time-Saving Information

In addition to P&H using the data for their own decision-making, producers can access the information from the station on smartphones, laptops and tablets via FarmCommand, a farm management platform from Farmers Edge.

Some producers are also getting into running their own stations right down to the field level. Carduner says the nearby Quill Lakes and the surrounding area is a major flood zone because of the amount of rain they’ve received in recent years. This has resulted in the flooding of some roads, altering how people travel in the area. She says several P&H customers who farm on the north and south sides of the Quill Lakes have placed weather stations on both sides of their property.

“So, they know if it’s not feasible for them to spray because of the wind, since that weather station is sitting on their land. When the grid road is closed from flooding, they would have to drive all the way around. This way, they save themselves an hour trip,” she says.

Examples like this demonstrate how using the stations to monitor things like wind speed, relative humidity and pressure is made all the more effective when that data is local and applies directly to a producer’s field.

If you’re going to be spending all your time looking at weather, you should be looking at the weather that’s right on your land. Louise Carduner

“I’ve heard that some producers have 10 different weather apps on their smartphone,” Carduner says. “If you’re going to be spending all your time looking at weather, you should be looking at the weather that’s right on your land.”

A technician installing an on-farm weather sration
A Farmers Edge precision tech specialist installs an on-farm weather station in Manitoba.

The Digital Age

The P&H Quill Lake weather station is from Farmers Edge, an independent company that offers integrated data and precision agronomy solutions to producers and agri-retailers. While they’ve only been offering weather stations for approximately three years, they already have over 1,600 stations across Canada and over 2,600 around the world.

When producers sign up for any Farmers Edge program, they’re given one weather station for every 2,500 acres, which is set up on the edge of, or near, their field. Andy Nadler, product manager at Farmers Edge, says the station communicates via a cellular modem, which sends data directly to the customer’s mobile phone or laptop.

“We found that because weather is such a huge factor for crop production, we just couldn’t not have good site-specific weather information. We looked at different techniques – there are methods out there that rely on remote techniques – but we just found that the most accurate way was to measure it at the field,” he says.

“It’ll collect the environmental parameters, your temperature, your rainfall, relative humidity, wind speed and wind direction,” adds Nadler. “With the cellular modem, it transfers that data to a central point, normally every five to 15 minutes. So, what it’s collecting is pretty much available in real-time to the farmer via the software. It’s collecting everything that’s going on at the field location.”

Running a local weather station might be a daunting prospect for producers and retailers alike, but Nadler says one of the key advantages of the Farmers Edge weather stations is they’re all professionally installed and sited by technicians.

“The data is sent for central processing and it’s made available in a very nice, user-friendly format in the FarmCommand software, so in this case, a lot of the work is done for the user,” he explains. “That’s one of the things we promote at Farmers Edge: the passive data collection where the farmer doesn’t have to worry about collecting the data – the weather station does it and we’re making sure that the data flows.”

Evolving Technology

Flowing data wasn’t always the case. Weather stations used to be static, meaning they would have a display and could log data, but that data couldn’t be shared via the Internet. But over the last few years, cellular weather stations have become the norm due to improved cell coverage and lower technology and communications costs. By using a cellular modem, these new weather stations are enabling producers and retailers to receive real-time data.

A technician installing an on-farm weather sration
An on-farm weather station is calibrated by a Farmers Edge precision tech specialist in North Dakota.

For Nadler, this rapidly evolving technology enables widespread communication and extensive connectivity, allowing retailers and producers to access the weather station data as often as they need to throughout the day. Sending data to producers on a daily basis used to be the standard; if it was sent hourly, “that would be impressive,” he says.

“But now, farmers really want it in real-time for their decisions, be it knowing what the temperature is, knowing how much it rained, where it rained, what the wind speed and direction is for spraying,” he says. “If the data is not right up to date, it has limited use.”

One of the primary drivers of this demand for up-to-date data is the computer most people have in their pocket – the smartphone. Mike Thurow is the president and CEO of Spectrum Technologies, Inc., a company based out of Aurora, Ill., that has been selling weather stations for 30 years. He attributes some of the proliferation of weather stations to the popularity of smartphones.

But now, farmers really want it in real-time for their decisions, be it knowing what the temperature is, knowing how much it has rained, where it has rained, what the wind speed and direction is doing for spraying. If the data is not right up to date, it has limited use. Andy Nadler

“Smartphones have changed people’s experience with getting information, communicating, sending emails or just going out and seeing what the current weather conditions are,” he says. “It’s not just that weather station technology has changed, but the delivery of and access to data (has changed).”

Forecasting the Future

While up-to-the-minute data from the stations is useful for the day-to-day decisions producers make, Nadler says there are also benefits in the tools derived from it. Data about rainfall, temperature, frost and current wind speed is integrated with the forecast, while producers have access to the historical data as well.

“I think where the real value comes from – and this is where Farmers Edge is really providing some value – is the modeling side for the decision support, like modeling nitrogen in corn so that you know when the corn needs nitrogen,” Nadler says. “If we know a certain number of parameters, like the soil parameters, the crop details and the weather, we can simulate how the crop would uptake the nitrogen. With that, we can predict if the crop has enough.”

The technology behind these weather stations is rapidly improving, and Nadler can only see it growing in the years to come. Describing the future of weather stations as “the Internet of Things” – computing devices embedded in everyday objects that are interconnected via the Internet – Nadler explains that weather stations will involve more sensors and more connectivity in the future.

“Now we have weather stations that are next to the field, but we’re moving toward in-field sensors, be it soil sensors or sensors that sense the environment within the canopy – your temperature, your humidity, your leaf-wetness,” he says. “So, we can get a more (in-depth look) of what’s going on. I think we’re going to see more sensors be able to know exactly what’s going on in greater detail – both spatially and temporally.”

But even in their current state, the weather stations are providing more than just helpful data for retailers and their customers. For P&H’s Carduner, the weather stations also allow her to connect with her customers, providing an avenue for her to engage in a discussion with them about the weather station at the P&H Quill Lake facility.

“It gives us a point of discussion that we might not have had with farmers. They sit down, we talk about the weather station and it helps build relationships. So, as a representative helping farmers, if I can show them something they didn’t know about, I’m bringing a lot of value to their farm.”

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