This research proposes modifying crop irrigation systems in the Central Great Plains to be conservative and efficient with water in times of drought, yet still “farmer-friendly”. The researchers further plan to improve the existing decision support tool, COMET-Farm, to account for “drought intensity input” and “crop-water productivity output”, and to eventually combine all this data to give training, and develop an additional tool to plan farmer water use.
Sponsor: USDA-NRCS Conversation Innovation Grant Program
- Principal Investigator: Dr. Neil Hansen, Department of Plant and Wildlife Sciences
- Co-PI: Dr. Francesca Cotrufo, Colorado State University
Irrigation methods have been well developed over time, yet most are ineffective in dry climates when water is partially restricted due to drought. The centralized-west region of the United States, known as the Central and South Great Plains, is one of the highest-risk places for drought and water sustainability. It is therefore necessary to adapt and evolve irrigation systems to these semi-arid regions, especially in the face of declining groundwater supply, increasing drought occurrences, and the rising demand for water.
Colorado State University has teamed with Brigham Young University, as well as producers and agencies in the agriculture industry to research synergy— the ability to magnify effects beyond the sum of individual elements— while growing crops in dry conditions. The project describes these “synergistic soil, crop, and water management practices” as the development of drought-tolerant crops, and the improvement of soil health. The team is also creating a decision support tool for the National Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) to evaluate water needs and plan efficient water distribution.
At three different sites, the team will simulate a range of conditions to test different conservation approaches. There are many existing irrigation mechanisms—such as solenoid valves, variable rate pumps, and backflow systems— that adjust the water delivery rate throughout the fields. This project builds on such systems, implementing two innovative techniques. First, infrared thermometers measure crop evapotranspiration, or the total transport of H2O from surfaces and vegetation. The system then uses this information to determine when and how much water the crop needs. The second technique protects the plant roots by evaluating the energy level of the soil, introducing water as it drops below a critical level.
Another novel part of this project is the use of genetically enhanced crops, namely corn hybrids, which have shown the ability to tolerate the hot and dry conditions of a drought. Often farmers plant cover crops, such as grasses, to protect again soil erosion and increase soil fertility. However, in the event of a drought, cover crops steal the water and nutrition that will feed much more needed crops. The development of corn hybrids presents a practical grain for human use, which will not steal resources from other crops during a drought.
The team also seeks to update the COMET-Farm system, which is a decision support system designed for farmers to manage the details of each field. These researchers will implement a new, high-resolution function to represent local weather. This is important because it allows for less uncertainty in temperature and precipitation— the main factors in ecosystem water dynamics. Additionally, the updated COMET-Farm program can run 10 year scenarios, which simulate a range of drought conditions. All this will allow farmers to measure the performance and success of various conservation practices, and project the health of their farms with future climate change.
Though the project is being conducted in Eastern Colorado, the findings and created processes that emerge from this project will extend throughout the Central Great Plains region. Farmers that adopt these drought conservation practices may yield more grain, see an increase in soil capacity for water retention, and learn to efficiently plan their water use. In short, these innovations will increase the sustainability and profitability of agriculture in the region.