UNL Research, Extension Help Ag Producers Manage a Changing Climate
By Renee Pflughaupt
Agriculture is complicated. Farmers have much more to think about than just when they will plant or what kinds of crops they will grow.
Technological and scientific advances have made it possible for farmers to optimize irrigation management, fertilizer application and control insect and fungal invasions. Even the crop itself is specialized.
However, said Suat Irmak, professor of biological systems engineering, soil and water resources and irrigation engineering, who also is a water management specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, "climate is the number one driver of productivity in agriculture."
A farmer can only do so much in the face of climate, even with the best management of soil, irrigation, pesticides, insecticides and herbicides.
"At the end of the day," Irmak said, "crops are going to respond to radiation, air temperature, humidity, wind speed... climate is going to dictate the potential yield for any given crop in a given growing season."
This becomes increasingly important when the world population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050, two billion more than today. Producing food for a growing population will require working very closely with producers to implement the best agricultural management practices in production fields- which is what Irmak sets out to do as both a UNL researcher and extension specialist.
Climate's impact on production, water use
Climate's impact on crop production and water resources, Irmak said, makes it an essential research topic for optimizing crop production.
"Without any question," Irmak said, "climate can be a great enhancer of productivity and can be a huge impediment to agricultural productivity."
Farming strategies can be implemented to mitigate changes in climate variables. But first, he said, one has to understand the trends and magnitudes of change and how it impacts productivity. Only then can a producer make a good decision about what can be done.
And, this requires research. When in doubt, Irmak said, "research, research, research."
For example, Irmak and his research team currently are mapping climate variable trends for the past 120 years in five different locations in Nebraska. This will be used to assess climate variables' impact on water resources and agricultural production.
One of the trends Irmak and his team are finding is that the growing season is getting longer and they are quantifying by how many days. This means farmers may be able to use longerseason maturity crops, which usually produce greater yields.
However, he added, a longer growing season could increase water use, depending on many other factors. This, in turn, will impact the state's water resources and irrigation management.
Investigating the Republican River Basin
So, how much will changing climate variables affect the state's water resources?
Irmak and his research team are embarking on two separate projects, both with the Republican River Basin. One will measure water application to croplands surrounding the Middle Republican Natural Resources District and compare that to the actual amount of water needed by the growing crops.
This will show where too much or too little water is being applied among the selected 50 sites along the basin. Once this is known, Irmak said, improvements to irrigation water management can be made.
"Education is everything"- research and extension
All of this research, however, would be somewhat useless without a rigorous extension program to implement the research findings into the practices on the ground. Irmak said Nebraska is blessed to have both a strong research institution and an extension network, which is integrated into the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR) to provide that research to producers and others who will benefit from having it.
"There has to be a strong link between research and extension," Irmak said. "You can't separate them. They have to have a strong connection to make an impact in the real world, in the field."
And research done at UNL is making an in Nebraska and worldwide, Irmak said.
"They acknowledge that they are benefiting," Irmak said. "Farmers, crop consultants, natural resource districts, the Department of Natural Resources... as well as in many other states and internationally."
The university also collects data to gauge the impact of its extension and research incentives in the field. One program that does this, and Irmak provides leadership for, is the Nebraska Agricultural Water Management Demonstration Network.
The program, established in 2005, includes more than 800 farmers with a footprint of more than one and a half million acres in Nebraska. On these fields, Irmak said, new tools and technologies are used to enhance efficiency and productivity, reducing energy consumption and optimizing irrigation water use.
Technology in the field
Irmak also has seen an uptick in the use of technology by farmers and crop consultants. Many farmers are using smartphones, he said, to control irrigation systems or check soil moisture levels in their fields.
Nebraska farmers are some of the best Irmak knows when it comes to implementing technology or research and scientifically-based strategies into their practices.
"Once you show them that this information or strategy came from good-quality research," he said, "and if you show them quantitatively its potential impacts, they don't have any problem implementing those technologies into their practices."
This is contrary to what often happens in other states and other countries, Irmak said. It comes back to the University of Nebraska's strong research and extension programs, which Irmak said work very much hand-in-hand.
In contrast, Irmak said many U.S. universities don't have a strong connection to an extension program- and in many other countries, extension programs simply don't exist.
"In this sense," Irmak said, "UNL has a huge advantage."
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