In recent years, California and the Southwest have faced severe droughts, causing farmers to cut back on cultivated acreage. In some parts of the world, lack of rainfall is doubly troublesome for farmers, as they have fewer resources and less irrigation infrastructure. As groundwater is depleted and climate change exacerbates dry conditions in some areas, agriculture worldwide will be challenged in the coming decades to use water more efficiently.
Those issues are precisely what Valmont Industries aims to help assuage. Valmont is a supplier of equipment for agriculture, telecommunications, electric power, and other industries, offering Internet of Things (IoT)-minded products and services that can, among other things, help farmers grow more food with less water.
Valmont designs and manufactures poles, towers, and structures for lighting and traffic signals, wireless communication, and utility markets. The company is also among the pioneers of IoT for agriculture and is using data from underground sensors in fields to help farmers not only use water more efficiently, but also to improve practices such as fertilization and pest control. Valmont crunches data garnered from IoT sensors to gain insight into how its products perform, how to enhance them, and how to better understand customers’ needs.
Tech in the FIeld
John Kehoe, pictured at right, and his team often take trips to visit their customers’ sites where Valmont products are being used, which helps them tailor solutions to real-time challenges.
Overseeing these IoT initiatives for Valmont is vice president and CIO John Kehoe. Kehoe ensures that IT integrates effectively with business strategy, secures the data collected in IoT programs, provides back-end support to IoT initiatives, and keeps abreast of new technology developments that proffer new opportunities for strategic advantage.
As an industry leader in manufacturing center pivots and linears—advanced sprinkler systems—that provide precise water, chemical, and fertilizer applications, Valmont aims to help farmers improve crop yields, conserve water, and reduce agricultural runoff. The company’s foray into agricultural IoT was a natural outgrowth of their work in this market. As the technology that tracks data and allows analysts to extract meaningful findings continues to improve, farmers will gain more insight into how to improve methods and practices, according to Kehoe. It’s the promise of further boosting efficient use of water that is the most exciting, though.
“Water is the scarcest resource in the world,” Kehoe says. “In the United States, we typically take it for granted.” Securing water rights in some countries is a costly endeavor, he points out, and in the worst cases, water becomes unavailable. “In Brazil, they’ve had a bad drought in the past few years,” Kehoe says. “Some farmers have had their water rights shut off to ensure water could be available in major metropolitan areas for drinking and sanitation uses.”
IoT helps farmers optimize water with underground sensors that monitor the amount of moisture in soil. This provides timely, accurate data that signals when it is optimal to run irrigation systems, how much water a field needs, or when farmers could hold off on irrigation—for instance, if rain is forecast for later in the week. Farmers access this data from mobile devices via mobile networks.
“Water is the scarcest resource in the world. In the United States, we typically take it for granted.”
Collaborating with agronomy companies and equipment vendors, Valmont is helping farmers gather and analyze more data about factors that impact crop yields. Combining the work of soil science, hydrology, meteorology, biology, and geography, Valmont and its partners are expanding the information that farmers can access from a single source on handheld devices. The aim of the Valmont Base Station 3 product, for example, is to provide more precise data about a host of factors such as the efficacy of certain fertilizers and pesticides on specific areas of cropland, whether certain sections of land are underperforming in yield, and where soil runoff is most problematic.
As the volume of data collected continues to grow dramatically, Kehoe and his 150-person IT team face a few key challenges. Keeping up with new developments in IoT may be the toughest of these. “It’s an ever-changing landscape with new sensors, new standards—not necessarily IT standards, but sometimes communications standards change, providing new opportunities,” Kehoe says.
In areas of the developing world, wireless communications services can be spotty. Valmont’s products have been designed to send data over multiple bands: UHF, VHF, satellite—whatever is available and can best meet customers’ needs. Some growers, for example, opt for pricey satellite services because they want fast access to data, and satellite may be the only reliable option in their region.
In the irrigation division, Andy Carritt, senior director of IT, directs the development, expansion of products, and integration of systems platforms to support the agricultural markets. Carritt works closely with customers to offer assistance in getting technology systems set up and communicating, helping the growers navigate this ever-changing world of communications and infrastructure.
As new technology options—related to sensors, communications, or software—become available, Kehoe is faced with difficult choices concerning which of the latest gizmos or features his development teams should pursue. One area that is of specific interest for Valmont is machine diagnostics. IoT data also helps Valmont track its products’ performance over their life cycles. The company can use data collected from sensors in pivots, which typically stay in place for twenty years, to improve durability and water efficiency performance on future models.
One strategy that helps Valmont make these decisions is to have IT staff devoted to learning about customer challenges. An IT manager is embedded with the customer service arm of each of Valmont’s major business units, providing a constant source of customer feedback to IT. Carritt acts as the IT emissary in the irrigation area. In this role, he regularly visits with customers in the field and with Valmont’s agronomic business partners to improve product offerings and accelerate the development of business solutions to improve customer outcomes.
“These trips to work with the customer are extremely valuable,” Carritt says. “We get the opportunity to see how growers’ operations are working and can provide real-time feedback to help them optimize the use of our products and services to improve yields. I never pass up an opportunity to be a part of these customer trips.”
To help ensure those division IT teams have the proper equipment for the job, some in IT regularly interact with key IT suppliers of tablets, laptops, and smartphones that farmers use on the job. In order to provide the best service, Valmont looks at each step in the process that directs data to customers. On the back end, cloud-based storage and data processing services have proven effective, reliable, and secure, Kehoe says.
The company is also pursuing IoT solutions in other industries that it serves. For example, it is testing the use of moisture sensors on communications and utilities towers. The devices can provide information about the structural integrity of metal so that human inspectors can make less frequent in-person examinations of these infrastructure components. Thus, workers would not have to climb these structures to make visual inspections as often—improving both safety and the bottom line.
As IT and analytics professionals continue to hone capabilities, Valmont will derive more benefits from gathering and sifting through data. As IoT services proliferate, there will be a lot more data providing fodder for these efforts, and Kehoe and his staff will be right there to take the opportunity to contribute even further to Valmont’s mission.