Nebraska's Irrigation Research Goes Global

By Tyler Klein

Timely access to water can be the difference between a record-yielding crop and a withered field. With the world's population set to reach nine billion people by 2050, potential yield fluctuations like these cannot be left up to Mother Nature's decision on when to make it rain.

Irrigation allows agricultural producers to supplement rain water so they can produce more food and fiber for the world, said Bill Kranz, an associate professor of biological systems engineering and extension irrigation specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Northeast Research and Extension Center.

Improving irrigation practices and equipment

irrigation plot"We are blessed with a good supply of very high quality water," said Kranz, referring to the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer which underlies nearly all of Nebraska.

"Most of what I do is try to improve upon and get more crop from that water. For me it is increasing production with less input," he said.

Kranz tries to help producers achieve greater yields while improving sustainability in the use of water.

There's an ongoing need to develop new ways of doing things. This can be done by working with new hybrids, or varieties, of corn and soybeans, along with implementing different management practices, Kranz said.

Enhanced genetics, sometimes called genetically-modified, are being integrated into plants. If a producer knows the plants will receive sufficient water through irrigation, that producer can plant hybrids that have higher potential yields than a hybrid that has to be more droughttolerant in a dryland, or rainfed, setting. Farmers can now average 220 bushels of corn per acre compared to 120-140 bushels per acre in a rainfed field, said Kranz.

Higher potential yields represent a greater chance of satisfying world demand in the future.

New technologies also are helping improve management practices. "Control panels on center pivots allow [producers] to adjust application settings due to soil texture, topography etcetera, and do it precisely. [Producers] are now using technologies like GPS (Global Positioning System) almost routinely," Kranz said.

Along with pivots, farmers utilize GPS by implementing it in many types of machinery including tractors, planters, and sprayers. When GPS is linked into a tractor, it has the ability to drive the tractor through a field with less than a foot of error. It can control which rows of a planter or sprayer are operating so overlap can be eliminated and inputs (seed, chemicals and fertilizers) can be applied more efficiently. With the use of GPS on pivots, irrigating can also be done more efficiently, conserving water and fuel.

This is important because the cost of energy has gone up. It costs significant dollars to put an inch of water on a crop, he added.

But costs such as fuel are not the only reason to strive for better application efficiency.

"Water in groundwater aquifers is a public property," Kranz said. "The NRDs (Natural Resource Districts) have rules that allow them to manage the water that is there."

This means that in some parts of the state, the NRD controls how much water a producer can pump during the growing season.

In order to minimize fuel costs and maximize water efficiency, improvements have been made to the basic irrigation systems.

"There have been improvements in sprinkler packages... we are approaching maximum efficiency related to those. We also have some subsurface drip irrigation systems being installed in the state now, so we are getting a potential for more efficiency out of those," Kranz said.

The improvements in sprinkler packages include the different types of nozzles that can be placed on a center pivot where the water comes out. Subsurface drip irrigation is a newer technology where irrigation lines are placed below the surface and water is dripped to the crop's root zone. This type of irrigation is very efficient because there is minimal evaporation off the soil surface.

A global view

The positive effects of the advances in technology and management practices through UNL have been felt throughout the world.

"Developing countries don't have to go through that development," Kranz said. "Other parts of the world are taking advantage of our technology so they don't have to start at the beginning."

Soils throughout the world must be managed correctly, and developing countries are taking a quantum leap, said Kranz. There are desert-like conditions in some places, and through the use of efficient irrigation, these places can be farmed and more food and fiber can be produced for the global market.


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