Site-specific variable rate irrigation (VRI) technology was developed about 20 years ago by U.S. and Australian public and private researchers, and has been commercially available since 2005, says Jake LaRue, director of research and development for Valmont, which acquired VRI technology in 2009.

The first commercial VRI speed control software systems could change water application depths in half-a-dozen pie-shaped sectors, Emanuel says. “We found that wasn’t accurate enough to adjust for the variability” in our fields. Working with Australian consultants, he created patented software that adjusts center pivot walk speed every 2-6 degrees for more precise watering in up to 180 segments per circle.

Emanuel also developed new web-based software tools for managing variable-rate irrigation. CropMetrics’ Virtual Agronomist processes GIS data and charts field variability, calculates VRI payback, and creates variable-rate watering prescriptions. It also determines the best location for soil-moisture probes, and analyzes yields and water use efficiency after harvest.

Before launching CropMetrics in 2009, Emanuel tested and refined the new software tools on his own farm – an advantage that “helped us develop technology that was easy for anybody to use.”

One of the biggest initial challenges for the young entrepreneur was pitching his concept to pivot manufacturers. “To make it work, we needed major multi-national companies to buy into the idea and change their equipment to make it compatible with our technology.” In 2010, CropMetrics signed a deal to provide variable-rate irrigation services for Valley Irrigation. CropMetrics software is now compatible with most other center pivot brands, too.

CropMetrics and Valley Irrigation also offer a more advanced watering system, called VRI zone control, which varies application rates along the pivot span. Individual sprinklers or banks of sprinklers turn on and off independently, allowing precise irrigation in thousands of small field units.

Just three years after start-up, Emanuel’s young company has 100,000 acres in six states under variable-rate irrigation management. “There’s a lot of interest in this new technology,” says Emanuel, a sought-after speaker at conferences and trade shows around the world. “Whether your goals are improving yield or water-use efficiency, this technique is becoming important.”