At the Heart of the Cost Share Program, ‘My Florida Farm Weather,’ Are Valuable Decision-Making Tools

Weather-related information is essential to Florida’s agricultural producers for making important decisions regarding the use of water for irrigation and cold protection.  Since the mid 1990’s, The Florida Automated Weather Network (FAWN), a program of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), has been providing a variety of weather-related tools that can aid growers in making irrigation and cold protection decisions. While proven useful to growers all across the state, some farms can be many miles from a FAWN site. Therefore, FAWN data may not always provide the local level of detail needed to ensure growers are operating irrigation systems during optimal times.  For this reason, FAWN worked with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) Office of Agricultural Water Policy to deploy a high-resolution farm based weather station network that provides growers with site-specific weather data that can be used to maximize water use for irrigation and cold protection.

 

Growers that are approved to participate in this cost share program, titled “My Florida Farm Weather”, can select one of several approved companies to install their weather station.  Depending on the level of sophistication desired and how much they are willing to spend, growers might choose a system with research-grade sensors and equipment, or they might choose a more economical solution, which might consist of an “all-in-one” system like one that might be more commonly used as a home weather station.  Regardless of the preferred system/cost, all sensors and equipment used in this program are high quality and sufficient for agricultural applications. Each weather station measures air and dew point temperatures, wind speed and direction, relative humidity, and rainfall amount. In addition, each grower is eligible for up to 5 additional temperature sensors to be installed in other locations on the property. Some growers have solar radiation sensors installed so FAWN can calculate evapotranspiration (ET) for irrigation scheduling with FAWN irrigation scheduling tools.

 

Data are collected every 15 minutes from each station (~180 currently statewide), stored on FAWN servers, and displayed on a GIS-based map. From the map, users can access current and archived data, forecasts, and decision-making tools.  Users can also overlay map features such as county boundaries, and even other data such as RADAR.  FAWN also developed an app for the iPhone and Android platforms that allows users to view data and tools on their smartphone.

 

Decision-making tools are at the heart of this program.  For example, the cold protection toolkit, accessible from both the website and smartphone app, guides users step-by-step through the decision-making process related to using water for cold protection.   This toolkit takes the user from looking at multi-day forecasts all the way down in scale to tracking individual cold events through estimating overnight minimum temperatures, monitoring forecasts in real-time, evaluating evaporative cooling potential, and determining when running irrigation systems can be safely shut down.  UF/IFAS estimates that using cold protection decision-making tools can save two hours of irrigation per cold event.  These savings can translate into billions of gallons of water and millions of dollars statewide per cold season.

 

FAWN also uses data from stations equipped with solar radiation sensors (required for calculating ET) to calculate crop irrigation schedules for several crops.  IFAS research has shown that ET-based irrigation scheduling can improve irrigation efficiency by 30%.  Currently, a limited number of stations are ET-capable, but more are added each year.

 

Output from the My Florida Farm Weather cold protection and irrigation scheduling tools are based on real-time data from the more than 180 grower weather stations statewide.  Real-time, site-specific data provide the best possible foundation for critical decision making.  The My Florida Farm Weather program can be accessed from the FAWN Homepage at http://fawn.ifas.ufl.edu.

 

Story by WILLIAM R. LUSHER, director of the UF/IFAS Extension Florida
Automated Weather Network (FAWN).