With world population expected to increase from 7 billion to 9 billion people in the next 40 years, farmers globally are expected to produce more food and fiber on less land and water.

That’s an extreme challenge in the arid U.S. West and Southwest, where large-scale farms struggle to survive economically amid chronic drought conditions and increasing costs for surface water.

Arizona, for example, is in its 15th consecutive year of drought.

Utilizing high tech solutions to improve yield with less irrigation water is a challenge taken seriously by scientists at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s U.S. Arid Land Agricultural Research Center at Maricopa, Ariz.

“ARS water conservation projects are designed to develop technology to provide farmers with options for limited water to economically continue their enterprises,” says Andy French, ARS research physical scientist.

“ARS’ goal is to find ways to potentially increase the water use efficiency of irrigation by either increased productivity at the current water use level or maintaining productivity with less water.”

The scientists are utilizing an arsenal of high tech remote sensing tools to determine specific plant needs in large-scale production agriculture.

ARS’ toolbox of instruments includes remote sensing cameras, wireless thermal radiometers, scintillometers, and neutron probes to predict and confirm, on a given day, specific field areas where plants need or do not need irrigation water.

This precision technique would allow farmers to irrigate only the areas where water is needed. It would replace the traditional practice of irrigating entire fields according to a calendar, whether plants in each field section need water or not. The scientists began field tests several years ago in three-acre fields of cotton, wheat, and camelina, the latter a new industrial oilseed crop gaining interest in the West as a biofuel.

The cotton trial has taken center stage in the ARS tests since it requires more water than wheat and camelina.

Beginning in 2009, cotton trials were expanded to a 12-acre field to test four irrigation schedule methods. There are 16 cotton borders, with 12 rows per border, which run 600 feet.

Large scale trials in small grains and camelina are planned next year.