Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Innovator,  Interview

How Agri-Inject’s Fertigation Technology Can Prevent Nitrate Leaching

Agri-Inject is a pioneer in the chemigation field. Since the 1980s, the Yuma, Colorado–based company has been promoting the use of mobile irrigation systems to apply fertilizer and chemicals in liquid form. This method of application, known as fertigation, allows for the quick, lowvolume, and continuous application of fertilizer, “spoon-feeding” crops no more than they can absorb and thus preventing leaching and nitrate pollution.

In this interview, Erik Tribelhorn, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Agri-Inject, speaks with Irrigation Leader about the advantages of fertigation and Agri-Inject’s sales around the world.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and the history of Agri-Inject.

Erik Tribelhorn: The company was founded in 1983 by Gary Newton, a farmer from east of Yuma, Colorado. He started toying with the idea of fertigation in the 1970s and created the business in the early 1980s. In 1985, the business moved to Yuma, Colorado. It has been in its current facility since 1991, which has expanded to more than 37,000 square feet in recent years. I started with Agri-Inject fresh out of college in 1992 and held a number of positions, gaining experience in nearly every facet of the business. Then an ownership opportunity in a center-pivot dealership arose, and I spent 12 years in that business. I returned to AgriInject in my current role as CEO in 2011. There have been a lot of changes since that time—things that needed to be updated or improved to allow us to position ourselves for growth. We’ve undergone significant growth since 2011 with strategic initiatives and capitalizing on opportunities both stateside and internationally. The strategic focus that underpins all our initiatives is ensuring that we promote the benefits of fertigation and chemigation and help growers understand that injecting liquid nutrients, chemicals, and other amendments into their irrigation system is an effective, environmentally safe, resource-saving activity that is viable and applicable to their operations.

Irrigation Leader: Since its founding, how many systems do you think your company has produced?

Erik Tribelhorn: I would say the number is well beyond 50,000 units.

Irrigation Leader: How many countries have you distributed those systems to?

Erik Tribelhorn: We usually sell into 42–45 states in the United States, and every year we usually have international revenue from 6 continents. Since many of our international sales run through distribution and original equipment manufacturer partners, it is often hard to document which individual countries are receiving our products; I’d guess they go to 25–30 countries every year.

A 110-gallon-per-hour fertilizer pump.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the savings and benefits of using your systems to apply fertilizer.

Erik Tribelhorn: A primary cost reduction of doing your own fertigation is that you are not making
separate trips to apply water and fertilizer. You’re using equipment that’s already applying water to apply fertilizer, too. You save the fuel and labor that would be needed for a second application, whether using a spray pilot that you hire, a spray rig, or a truck that spreads dry fertilizer or manure.

Fertigation reduces compaction and crop damage compared to other methods. In the case of a center pivot, you’ve got established wheel ruts. Using the center pivot to apply fertilizer or chemicals means you avoid compacting additional soil with additional tires. That benefits the health of the soil and the crops.

Most importantly, fertigation gives you the opportunity to spoon-feed your crops nutrients as they need them. Fertigation provides nutrients in a liquid solution form that can be immediately taken up by plants. Growing crops need timely water and fertilizer to thrive. Fertigation gives the grower that control, all season long. That results in a healthier plant and better yields and minimizes nutrient losses due to leaching and excess denitrification.

Spoon-feeding allows the grower better control over their cash flow and mitigates risk in their operation. For example, suppose a corn farmer applies one-third of their nitrogen pre-plant and another one-third when the crop is 20 inches (50 centimeters) high. The plant may be one quarter of the way through its life cycle, yet twothirds of the fertilizer is in the ground. This requires an upfront investment in fertilizer, but most importantly, the nitrogen in the ground is now exposed to a decent amount of risk. A 20-inch (50-centimeter) rain could leach the fertilizer outside the root zone. A hailstorm could level the crop. Storing the fertilizer in the ground can be a risky proposition, both for the grower’s profit and for the environment.

Fertigation is a valuable application process on New Zealand farms that are raising grass for cattle feed and grazing. These crops nearly always grow best when given a steady diet of water and nutrients, which facilitates consistent growth through their life cycle. You don’t want to create a surge of growth that causes the plant to overgrow by slugging the fertilizer on every few weeks. This causes cycles of overgrowth followed by plant decline, which are both counterproductive for grazing or haying operations. Additionally, fertigation can control the escape of fertilizer into nontarget areas if it is applied in accordance with the plant needs.

Irrigation Leader: Do you have an app or other form of remote access and control technology that can help producers with fertigation?

Erik Tribelhorn: We have two pieces of technology that can be driven from your phone. One is an app called ApplyYourself that assists growers and distributor partners with two critical tasks. First, it allows the user to easily select the best pump for a particular application. They enter information about the size of their plot, the amount of fertilizer or chemical they want to apply, and the amount of time it takes to irrigate, and the app selects the best pump for them. Secondly, it guides the user through the calibration process for any one of our pumps. The user selects the pump that they have and enters the details of their current application, and the app will guide them through the entire calibration process, including where to set the pump capacity knob and how much to pump through the calibration tube and for how long. There is even an in-app stopwatch to assist with timing. It’s a valuable tool in the field.

For controlling and monitoring the pump, we have a control technology called ReflexCONNECT. The control system can control and monitor the fertigation system from any connected point in the world, as long as there is a cellular signal available at the system. You have on/off control, and since the unit features sensors that measure the pressure and flow of the fertigation unit, the user can tell precisely how the system is operating and even set alarms to allow them to receive a notification if the system is operating beyond defined limits. For instance, a grower may have an application operating at 66 gallons (250 liters) per hour at 72 pounds per square inch (5 bar). They can configure ReflexCONNECT to notify them if the flow exceeds a defined percentage above or below the set flow or the pressure setting. If desired, it can even shut down the fertigation system or the irrigation system automatically. It is powerful and has many configuration options for today’s remote-control-oriented farmer. ReflexCONNECT eliminates any concerns growers have about being onsite constantly to monitor fertigation events. It puts that control at their fingertips.

A 110-gallon-per-hour fertilizer pump.

Irrigation Leader: The system consists of a pump, which is set at a certain rate based on the flow of the pivot, and a storage tank that holds the fertilizer. How is the size of the storage tank determined?

Erik Tribelhorn: Usually the farmers will size the fertilizer tank according to their largest single application need during the year. Let’s say they’re growing corn, and during the season they may want to apply 8½ gallons of fertilizer per acre (80 liters per hectare) to a 100-acre (40-hectare) circle. They’ll need 850 gallons (3,217 liters) of fertilizer total for that application, so they’ll want a tank that is at least that large, plus a bit of buffer.

Irrigation Leader: How can Agri-Inject’s products help avoid nitrate overapplication?

Erik Tribelhorn: In various parts of the United States—the Delmarva Peninsula is one that comes to mind—there are concerns about fertilizer nitrogen leaching into waterways and causing environmental problems. That is a concern in New Zealand, too. If you spoon-feed fertilizer by means of fertigation and are conscious of how much water you’re applying, the type of soil, and the fertilizer and water requirements for the plant to be at its highest level of health, then the application typically has minimal risk of creating leaching and runoff problems. It is a good way to mitigate that problem.

Erik Tribelhorn is the CEO of Agri-Inject. He can be reached at erik@agri-inject.com.