During times of drought, like the current one, every drop of irrigation water is worth its weight (choose one - in gold, silver, cotton, corn, cattle, etc.) to a farmer or rancher, so it should come as no surprise that managing irrigation goes hand-in-hand with managing the drought.
That's the intent of a new program by researchers at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco designed to maximize irrigation results for the least amount of water.
Imagine rising first thing in the morning, turning on your computer and in less time than it takes to throw back your first cup of coffee you are able to monitor your crop or pasture and the specific need for water that day and exactly where to apply irrigation efforts to keep your costs down, conserve the precious resource and maximize the benefits.
It's not only possible, but irrigation experts believe the technology to make it happen has already arrived.
The Weslaco Extension Center has been awarded part of a nationwide $5.3 million Conservation Innovation Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Service to “develop guidelines for managing irrigation under drought conditions and computer programs for linking weather stations with irrigation scheduling,” according to Dr. Juan Enciso, an irrigation engineer at the center.
The South Texas center will receive $233,000 to develop irrigation guidelines, starting with crops like sugarcane, citrus, corn, cotton, onions and watermelon, as well as for pastures in the Texas Lower Rio Grande Valley.
“The main purpose of the program funded by this grant is to develop agronomic and irrigation strategies to manage drought conditions in irrigated agriculture and grazed land,” Enciso said. “We’ve proposed four specific objectives for this project.”
Grant funds will help researchers determine irrigation priorities that will maximize profitability while increasing water-use efficiency.
“We’ll develop guidelines on when and how much to water these crops under both full irrigation and limited water supply situations,” he said.
The next objective of the grant project will be to develop an Internet-based computer program to adapt irrigation management according to drought conditions using a weather station network.
“We will be expanding our current network of three weather stations currently in use here in the Valley,” Enciso said. “Each station has sensors that measure solar radiation, temperature, relative humidity, wind and other factors which all correlate to water use in crops."
In this way, growers can monitor irrigation needs using their computer and the Internet to determine the current water needs and how to best address that depending on availability of water resources. During extreme drought conditions, he says growers can better allocate available water based on critical crop growing stages.
Agricultural weather stations such as those often found at airports that take measurements at heights up to 30 feet are not useful in making agricultural predictions. As part of the new grant, soil moisture sensors will be placed throughout the region. These will use remote sensing technology to transmit data that is passed on to growers.
Moving beyond the first two objectives, researchers hope to demonstrate and educate growers on the technology, including how to determine water-use irrigation using poly-pipe and water-application efficiencies, “and to learn how to calculate net return per unit of water applied," he reports.
Enciso says, especially in South Texas, it is important to devise strategies for times of drought, to take the guess work and estimation out of properly watering crops
“This project will help us conserve water when it’s in ample supply as well as when irrigations are restricted. This project will help us develop and combine what we know about crop water needs, current environmental conditions and water availability to minimize water use while maximizing the highest possible yields.”
Collaborators in the project include Dr. Luis Ribera, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agricultural economist in Weslaco, and Dr. Shad Nelson, an associate professor of horticulture and chair of agriculture, agribusiness and environmental sciences at Texas A&M University-Kingsville.