GroGuru Interview with Nich Kenny and Patrick Henry
Patrick: This is Patrick Henry, the CEO of GroGuru. I’m talking today with Nich Kenny. I’ve known Nich for a couple of years now. He is the Owner and Agriculture Consultant at NPK Ag. Nich is a Registered Professional Engineer with a broad agriculture background.
He’s worked with a number of our customers. He’s done on-site crop production, agronomy, water resource, energy, environmental design, project management, and on-farm research. His specific professional expertise includes center pivot irrigation systems and subsurface drip variation systems.
He has comprehensive field, production, and produce crop system experience as well as on-farm energy management. Thanks for taking some time to talk with us today, Nich.
Nich: Patrick, thank you for the opportunity and the introduction.
Patrick: In your experience, how important is soil monitoring in the optimization of crop yield, crop quality, energy efficiency, and water efficiency?
Nich: You can’t manage what you can’t measure. Historically speaking, soil moisture has been an entity where we know it’s there. We know it’s important to store and bank water to get you through periods of time when maybe your irrigation system can’t keep up.
Over the last 10 to 12 years, as technologies have become more useful, I think monitoring soil water is mandatory in terms of its level of importance, not just for maximizing water use efficiency, but also for maximizing your crop. You want to be sure you’re managing the crop to its needs. Soil moisture monitoring is more than valuable. It’s mandatory at this point, mostly because we can do it. The information that it gives us is so crucial.
Patrick: How long have you been involved in the use of soil moisture probes and monitoring?
Nich: We can go back to the analog days of pulling cords with an oak field probe. It’s 20-plus years now. At this point, I’ve been doing that for half of my life. In terms of what we currently consider soil moisture probes, it’s been 12-plus years.
Patrick: Tell us about what you see as the primary benefits for farmers in using the GroGuru permanent installation soil monitoring system, especially for broad acre row crops and field crops.
Nich: Let me give you some background. One of the caveats for soil moisture monitoring is that it’s always been cumbersome to get into the hands of farmers. It’s been difficult to extract the data. It’s been difficult to use the information. It’s been difficult to put the information into play. You didn’t know what you were managing to.
GroGuru is built on a foundation that’s been developed over the years of making progress to where the information is something that’s useful to the end user, the grower. The GroGuru permanent install allows off-season monitoring. That has been one of the missing links. It allows full in-season monitoring from pre-plant through germination all the way through harvest. You can track water needs for the entire duration of the crop.
The delivery has been seamless in a way that a person can use that information, not just to measure and benchmark totals, but to track trends of growth cycles. For example, currently we’re looking at Texas high plains. It’s the end of June. It’s our most demanding period of the year for water use and corn. We are able to track what water extraction is. I’m looking at this from hundreds of miles away.
I can look at the chart at the extraction rates of water in the top two feet and say, “This is a good-looking crop.” I can make a phone call to the farmer and say, “What does the crop look like?” He says, “This is my best crop of corn.” I can tell that because the GroGuru soil moisture sensors are showing me the extraction rates.
Over the last two weeks, it has been showing me that the extraction rate has increased. We talk about stepping and extraction intervals during the day versus a resting period at night. I can see that the steps during the day are substantial. For me, that’s a good sign. Transpiration equates to growth.
If I’m making it through the last two weeks of June, which has a tremendous amount of stress, and I’m drawing water through the crop progressively through the profile, I know that I have a plant in the field that’s healthy and vibrant. That’s the type of thing that a probe allows me to do.
Patrick: In the Western corn belt and the Texas panhandle where you have a ton of experience, a lot of these guys are what they call deficit irrigators. They may use 20% plus of their irrigation budget before they even put crop in the ground. Can you talk about the importance of filling the soil profile? With competitive alternatives, you don’t have probes in the ground during that period of time. With GroGuru, you can monitor and manage that because the probes are there year-round.
Nich: If we talk about deficit irrigation, that typically implies either a regulatory or capacity limited ability to apply water. You end up with a period during the season where the crop demands more water than you can physically apply. In the Texas panhandle, like much of the West, it is capacity limited. It’s not regulatory limited. Even if you had permission to apply the water, you don’t have the capacity to do it.
You have to strategically bank and fill the soil profile prior to getting to that critical management point. The tables are turned, and you can apply more. At some point in the season, if you get to where you can’t apply enough to keep up, if you have a number of inches of water stored in the soil profile, when you hit that period, the plant just keeps on chugging.
The end of June is typically when we’re stepping into that. That’s what I’m looking at now. We stepped through our capacity. We’re now exceeding capacity with water extraction on a daily basis. In the bottom four feet of my soil profile, I have 100% water stored. That storage came during the off season. First, through slight snowfall events. Second, through precipitation in the off season.
In some cases, if you’ve been able to manage it during the off season like we did this year, you can have an application of pre-water in a period when you have less irrigation demand. For example, the months of January, February and March when the evaporate stresses and the strains on the wells are really low, you can strategically put on really deep applications of water without evaporating a whole bunch of it and store that in the soil for use at the time when you really need it.
That’s exactly the strategy that a permanently installed probe helps with. It gives you that information, whereas, with an in-season probe, although that information is really valuable, it doesn’t answer all of those questions. I’ll give you a specific example. This year in the Texas panhandle, rainfall during the off season was limited. It was shorter than needed.
In a rotational crop where we had corn following cotton, our cotton crop aggressively extracted water at the end of last year. We had enough room to store in the range of eight inches worth of soil water during the off season to fill up the profile. We did not get eight inches worth of precipitation. We knew we would need that much water to have an effective corn crop. We elected late in the off season to apply two and a half inches of pre-water.
That water will count against our budget, but that’s an application we knew we would not be able to apply during July. We could apply it in February and March, and in this case, as late as April. We made the strategic decision to do that. I think that’s the right decision. From a water conservation standpoint, it’s not always the best strategy.
Having a probe out there allows you to say, “This is the year when I want to apply a little bit of water,” or “This is a year when I already have water banked and I do not need to apply it.” I think that’s a very important piece of information that a permanently installed probe answers and we’ve never had answers to this before.
Patrick: How have you found the GroGuru system to install and use in your experience compared to the alternatives?
Nich: What’s nice about the market for soil moisture probes is that, historically, it’s been a service. The farmer hasn’t had to worry too much about the install. GroGuru is like that. We identify the points and areas. Like a thief in the night, you turn around and the probe is in.
Since it is permanently installed, it’s a two-piece system. We’ve had to harvest and spray around it. That’s when you get into the management. It’s untethered. Essentially, we pull the receiving unit out. I get confused whether that’s the fox or the badger. We do the field passes through it. We stand that receiving unit back up, and we’re in business. There have been zero glitches on the software end of it.
When I look at the results on the web page, I can’t tell a difference. The information is always there. I presume there is a logging interval and algorithms on your side that you’ve been working with to fill in those gaps. Being an end user, I don’t see those gaps, so I’m happy with that.
Patrick: As an ag consultant with many customers, how do you like the GroGuru software and user interface from a management standpoint?
Nich: I love it. It’s familiar to me. It’s an improvement over what some have been. One of the benefits that I like is that I have one login. The people who have given me access, it’s a quick phone call and I get access to those probes through my login. I have an entire profile of who I work with. That’s really useful. It’s seamless.
There is a new version of the software that I’ve been working with for about a week. I like that it’s intuitive as a web browser. I can click back and it takes me right back to the stage I was before, instead of having to undo, cycle back, and progress forward. I can end up right back where I was. It is expedited.
Before we were on air, we talked about limited internet connection for this interview. Occasionally, I find myself in limited internet connection areas. This last iteration of software is faster than any of the probe software that I’ve historically used, which is nice. It clicks through quickly.
Patrick: Farmers really love that speed of access, especially on a mobile device. If you’re in the field and you have a punch list of things to do, the last thing you want to do is wait for downloads. Are there other key things based on your experience that you’d like our audience to hear about with your experience with GroGuru or the importance of soil moisture monitoring and irrigation management relative to farming?
Nich: One thing I have liked is the credibility of someone bringing you up to speed with monitoring devices. When you come from an area where you’re looking at inches of water as your currency, one of the best tools for me to understand how to use soil moisture monitoring was an agronomy group that helped me interpret what the data meant.
It took me a while, but I came off the hard and fast values to trends. Having someone like David Sloane help with that is invaluable. He’s been helpful to me. I know that he’s a principal within your group. I think agronomy support to get you up to speed with understanding what you’re looking at is priceless. I’m glad for that.
As you get shorter in water, the ability to manage every last input of water is so crucial. Having these probes allow you to know whether you need to focus on duration, depth of applied water, or quicker versus longer passes. These types of probes give you that immediate feedback. These are decisions that it seems they’ve been focusing on this year.
I get a lot of questions from guys saying, “Do I speed up or slow down? Do I put on more frequently or less frequently? How do I manage this fixed amount of water?” With very quick feedback and confidence, I can say, “This is my strategy that’s working. This is what I need to stick to,” or “This is strategy is not working. I need to depart from it and find something else.”
Historically speaking, we’ve found that longer durations and intervals with deeper applied depths seem to work in areas with high abiotic stresses. That’s somewhat counterintuitive, but the probes give a user the confidence on what decisions to make on the field.
Patrick: With competitive alternatives and the annual install and removal model, you have that four-week window after crop emergence to get the probes in the ground.
Then you have to go through a few wetting cycles in order to get the calibrated. Then you have to get them out of the ground four weeks prior to harvest. Are those windows that are covered by a permanent probe essential windows that you’ve found using GroGuru?
Nich: As someone who has used more traditional probes historically, I would have said, “No, probably not.” With my experience having these installed for less than 18 months, one full cycle, absolutely. We made at least three management decisions on certain fields this season before the traditional probes were installed. I found myself being antsy, waiting for competitor probes to be installed. I have a unique opportunity.
I have research duties where I get to do some side-by-sides. That has afforded me the luxury of seeing the benefits and pitfalls. I was not expecting this particular season to be as happy with having permanently installed probes post planting, pre-germination, and shortly following germination.
To me, it was shifting the way that I was managing. Before, I typically hadn’t been making those management decisions. In terms of value, absolutely. I look at it as a third-party person. It’s not so much of an advertisement. This is the progression of the probe, which is exciting. It’s been a useful tool. Now it’s even more useful.
Patrick: I appreciate your time, Nich. I think this is informative for the folks listening.
Nich: I’ve been doing a lot of off-site work. Without pivot monitoring, probe data, and all of these things, I would be blind in this process. The off-site input that I’ve been able to see and share has been crucial during this period. I feel more confident managing with distance now than I ever have. Nothing beats being in the field, but the tools are helping to close that gap.
Patrick: Thanks, Nich. This is Patrick Henry, the CEO of GroGuru. I’m talking to Nich Kenny. Nich is a professional engineer and expert on irrigation agronomy. It’s been great to have him with us here today.