I often get asked, what’s the best weather station for my farm, ranch, orchard, or vineyard? Like anything, it depends. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Similar to any other type of farm equipment, the choice of farm weather station is somewhat specific to the needs of the operation.
There are a few factors to consider when choosing a farm weather station, these include:
- Parameters that are measured
- Communications options
- Data access and tools
1. Parameters that are measured
Any basic weather station should measure air temperature, relative humidity, rainfall, wind speed, and wind direction. These are the main parameters that satisfy most users’ needs. Temperature to monitor frost, growing degree days, cooling degree days, pest development, and heat stress. Relative humidity indicates the amount moisture in the air, which can contribute to crop water demand and disease pressure. Rainfall is the most important parameter as it varies the most from season to season, from one location to the next, and it has the most direct impact on crop productivity. Wind speed and direction are critical for spraying. Wind speed is also necessary for determining crop water demand.
Then there are some special-use sensors that are needed for certain applications. Solar radiation is critical for irrigators who need to know crop water demand. Soil moisture sensors are used to determine how much water is in the root zone to help guide irrigation timing and application amount. A leaf wetness sensor simulates moisture on a leaf surface and is used in many crop disease risk models.
Many weather stations are customizable in that additional sensors are somewhat plug-and-play into the main unit. This is handy for ease-of-use and for maintaining a single, compact monitoring site. However, sometimes it makes more sense for sensors to be spread further afield. For example, a weather station should normally be installed outside of the field. Yet soil moisture sensors are only effective if they are in the field and in the root zone. To avoid long wire runs, which are prone to damage, wireless sensor nodes are a perfect solution, allowing sensors to be placed anywhere within wireless range of the receiver – no cables!
2. Communications options
A farm weather station must be able to relay its sensor data so that it can be easily accessed. Instant frost alerts can notify an operator to deploy mitigation strategies. Real-time wind conditions can inform a spray applicator the instant conditions are no longer safe for spraying. Communications can also notify the station owner of any potential problems with the equipment.
Most systems transmit sensor data via wireless connection, either radio, Wi-Fi, or Cellular. The most appropriate option often depends on the proximity of the station to the nearest reliable internet connection. If the farm internet is not reliable, then a different method, such as cellular, should be used to transmit sensor information. If the cellular signal is too weak, then other options like satellite need to be explored. Generally, internet is the most affordable (assuming it’s already in place), followed by cellular, then satellite. However, the costs of all three options have decreased significantly over the past few years.
Newer wireless technologies like Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN/LoRaWAN) or Davis Instrument’s EnviroMonitor system, have enabled a variety of sensors can be placed across the farm and be accessed in near-real-time. A basic Davis Instruments wireless transmitter has a range of up to 300m. The EnviroMonitor system can transmit up to 3km from node to node. LPWAN can transmit over 10km from base station to node. There are hundreds of sensors that are compatible with any of these types of systems.
3. Data Access and tools
Getting raw sensor data does not meet most users’ needs. Rather the information must be presented in a way that is easy to access and interpret. It must be presented in a way that provides actionable insights. When evaluating weather monitoring options, be sure to test the tools that are available.
During the busy growing season, most farmers are not likely to log into an application and spend great amounts of time interpreting the data from various monitoring points. Instead, the information should be consolidated into one or two dashboards that provide the necessary information immediately. Or better still, you receive an alert telling you what needs your attention. Having mobile access, whether a native iOS or Android app or a mobile-friendly website is key.
Some users require a platform that will allow sensor data to be integrated into other systems. For example, in British Columbia, the ability to send data to Farmwest is a condition of Beneficial Management Practice (BMP) funding eligibility. Different types of irrigation software may have the ability to bring in various weather sources. Even public weather data sharing sites like Weather Underground, Weathercloud, or WeatherLink.
Reports are excellent tools for reviewing recent conditions without having to dig into the software. Reports can provide some insight into how the season is progressing and how conditions compare to normal. This information can be used to adjust management activities, timing of operations, and marketing strategies.
The price of a weather station can vary tremendously. A fully equipped climate station can easily cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. Alternatively, a hobby-grade backyard weather station can cost as little as one or two hundred dollars. Of course, the happy medium lies somewhere in the middle.
When it comes to farm weather stations, more expensive isn’t always the most suitable choice. In many cases, the expensive stations may be highly customizable – but with many features comes complexity. Setup, configuration, and maintenance of higher-end stations is more involved, often requiring trained personnel and equipment. And replacement parts can be expensive.
Even the most expensive stations are often subject to the same limitations as any of the more economical alternatives. Poor siting of any weather station will result in questionable measurements. Lack of regular maintenance, including cleaning of sensors and clearing of obstructions in the rain gauge will negatively affect the accuracy of the sensors on any station. In fact, a well-sited and regularly maintained thousand-dollar station will capture better data than a ten-thousand-dollar station that is improperly sited and poorly maintained.
Another budget-related factor is the number of monitoring points across the farm. No farm is completely uniform in terms of the weather it receives. There are always microclimates that exist. Such factors are exacerbated by the size of the farm, elevational changes, slopes, aspects, physical features, and even by crop types. The biggest challenge is to adequately capture and account for this variability.
With very expensive hardware, a farm on a fixed budget (every farm) may only be able to afford one weather station. This one station is likely to provide very accurate information for a single location but fails to capture the true variability throughout the landscape. Alternatively, for a similar cost, a full monitoring solution can be implemented – one that reflects what is really happening across the farm. This could involve multiple weather stations or perhaps one main weather station that records all parameters, then a combination of wireless temperature, relative humidity, rain, leaf wetness, or soil sensor nodes distributed throughout the various microclimates or management zones.
Considered data and software costs. Some stations are more affordable to purchase upfront but have hefty ongoing fees. In some cases, the cost of the subscription over time ends up being much higher than the value of the hardware.
Expect to pay some ongoing costs since data transmission and processing and improvement and upkeep of systems can be expensive. Depending on the features and mode of communication, monthly costs can range from a few dollars to as high as $50. If on-site maintenance is included, the costs could be higher. Be sure to understand the ongoing costs of having the weather station and whether there is a long-term commitment.
It can seem overwhelming choosing the right weather monitoring solution for a farm, ranch, orchard, or vineyard. There are many options available – some suitable and some less suitable. Perhaps the best advice I can offer is to ask around. See what other farms are using and what works (and what doesn’t). Find a supplier that will provide honest advice and help evaluate the many options. Also, work with a provider who can offer service and support.
The right farm weather station will provide many years of trouble-free monitoring, helping you stay aware of what’s happening across the farm. For more information or to discuss monitoring options, please contact Peak HydroMet Solutions or visit our new online weather store – weathershop.ca.