Connectivity powers irrigation efficiency

Published: Fri 22 Nov 2019 03:16 PM
Internet connectivity and technology are playing a vital role in the growth of Ashburton-based Plains Irrigators, which has grown from a local business into a large South Island enterprise employing around 40 staff.
The company started in the 1990s with the beginning of centre pivot irrigation. It designs, installs and services pivot and lateral irrigators, and retrofits existing systems.
Manager Dan Stephens describes internet connectivity as crucial to the company’s growth. It helps with a wide range of daily tasks, from tracking fleet vehicles in real time, to remotely training farmers on how to use precision irrigation technology. It also assists the company with monitoring irrigation systems to ensure they are running optimally.
He’s grateful that he doesn’t need to worry about slow internet speeds. The company is based in Ashburton Business Estate and has access to the best connectivity available via fibre optic cable.
Local electricity supplier EA Networks has installed the cable to most of the town, including the business estate.
Eighteen years ago, Dan started at the firm with an entry level role working in the field supporting build crews. Being technology savvy helped him work his way up, and he has expanded his knowledge while keeping the business ahead of the game.
An online fleet management system helps to monitor, manage and communicate with staff in the field. At any one time there can be 20 or more fleet vehicles out on jobs.
One of the main advantages of this system is being able to keep a record of off-road kilometres. The company couldn’t previously claim for kilometres travelled on farms, but now with a record of it, this has resulted in a significant tax saving.
The system also boosts efficiency with service managers being able to monitor the fleet and to send the most conveniently placed staff member to the next job. It also provides tips on the quickest route to the next job, which is surprisingly handy even for staff who know their country roads well, as a shortcut down an obscure shingle road can save travel time. Knowing where each staff member’s vehicle is at any one time also helps manage health and safety requirements
The value of technology cannot be overlooked when it comes to designing, installing and commissioning irrigation, however Dan says this only works together with face-to-face communication.
“It is important to build the foundations of good customer relationships, and farmers like to get a feel for their new irrigation system first-hand.
“Internet connectivity really comes into its own in terms of training, monitoring and support.”
For Dan, the most important aspect of a good irrigation system is its ability to provide farmers with accurate data which gives them the certainty they need to meet compliance requirements for
Farm Environment Plans (FEPs) and other aspects of environmental monitoring.
“Farmers need precise measurements for their audits, and with VRI (Variable Rate Irrigation) and we can now supply material to prove the rate of effluent spread on the farm which is becoming increasingly important as monitoring requirements become more stringent.
“We have 10 years of supplying, installing and servicing VRI systems which is cutting edge technology in terms of providing accurate irrigation data.”
Variable rate irrigation is vital for all good centre pivot technology, and this requires cloud-based
software using GPS, along with measuring variables such as soil type, crop type and moisture levels. Plains Irrigation staff can log into individual systems to help clients as they learn how to use it.
“We can sign in at the same time as our clients to help them diagnose problems and do off-site training which provides a significant benefit to both parties,” Dan says.
Digital connectivity has helped the business in other ways. Large images and graphics files can be sent easily via the cloud. Video conferencing makes it easy to connect with staff at branch offices in Timaru and Cromwell.
Another option Dan is considering to further increase the efficiency of internal communication, is an internet-connected electronic whiteboard device where participants in video conferences can write on-screen in real time, and then save and distribute their contributions.
He’s also looking at streamlining in-house operations in accounting, staff management, sales and design with a cloud-based customer relationship management software package.
Dan encourages other businesses to investigate how technology can help them create a more efficient operation.
“Look at what’s out there and see if it will help your business thrive. Technology can really help your business grow and develop.”

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