A young farmer from eastern Nebraska is pushing irrigation management to a new level of precision. Nick Emanuel, founder and president of CropMetrics, is a leader in variable rate irrigation management. The innovations he developed on his farm are helping growers match water application rates to soil type, conserving water and reducing yield variability. “He’s a small-town Nebraska boy who is making a global impact on water management,” says Dave Varner, a University of Nebraska Extension scientist in southeast Nebraska.

Emanuel, 33, grew up on a farm near North Bend, Neb., population 1,179. He attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agronomy and GIS remote sensing. In 2005, Emanuel joined John Deere’s Agricultural Management Solutions division, working in precision-ag research and development.

Emanuel moved back home to North Bend in 2007 to farm with his dad and uncle. The family grows 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans on Platte River Valley soils ranging from fine sand to clay loam. The Emanuels were doing grid soil sampling, and experimenting with variable-rate seeding and N application.

“But when we analyzed our yield data, we found that our yields were driven more by water and how that interacted with different soil types,” Emanuel says. About 80% of the farm is irrigated, primarily with center pivots. “Water not only affected crop yields, but also N utilization and seeding rate response,” Emanuel says. His conclusion: Without optimum irrigation, other variable-rate management practices failed to deliver full benefits.

Yet, the only way to irrigate was to apply a single rate. “We had no option for anything else,” Emanuel says. “So, we’d put on the correct amount of water for the majority soil type in the field, but with our soil variability, we’d end up over-watering some soils and under-watering others. That’s when I started playing with variable rate irrigation ideas.”

Innovations tested on family farm

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.”