New Irrigation Technology for Today’s Farm

Back in the day, an animal-drawn plow was a pretty big deal. Then came horse-drawn combines, tractors, and all sorts of mechanized farm equipment. Now, farmers have access to a huge array of technologies that give exact data on weather, soil nutrient content, water usage, pests, disease, crop improvements, and many other factors in farming.

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Broccoli being grown with very inefficient flood irrigation. Photo source

Tractors drive themselves using GPS, far-off pivots can be controlled from a phone, drones photograph fields and map pests and disease, and even the seeds produce more while requiring less water and fewer chemicals!

I was looking through the Spring, 2016 newsletter from Valley, a huge irrigation company. There are so many interesting new things! For example, one of Valley’s suppliers of pivot sprinkler heads has developed some brand new irrigation technology. Farmers can install sprinkler heads that operate at low water pressures to provide energy savings, and they throw out bigger water droplets  that are more wind-resistant, to reduce water being lost in the wind. Other sprinkler head attachments extend super close to the ground to save water when watering low-growing or new crops. That way, the water doesn’t get blown away! Another sprinkler head, called the “Bubbler,” can be used on extension poles and will “bubble” the water gently down directly into the furrow so that not even the crop leaves get wet.These heads allow 20% more water to reach the soil compared with spray irrigation!

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Bubbler irrigation heads on dropped lines putting water right down in the furrows. Photo source

Irrigation pipe material is also changing. Farmers can choose from different materials, depending on the contents of their water. Farmers can have their water tested for any corrosive qualities, like pH, sulfates, chlorides, etc. Then they can choose galvanized steel pipes, or a newer type of pipe called PolySpan, which are more resistant to corrosive materials, and will last much longer than galvanized. PolySpan pipes are galvanized pipes with a coating of high density polyethylene, which will last indefinitely, and does not pass along any substance to the water running through it.

In-field moisture sensors are also a great tool to help farmers irrigate efficiently. The sensors are pushed into the ground at various spots and depths around the field. They measure how much water is in the soil, and can tell the farmer whether the water has separated to “available” or “unavailable.”

“Every soil holds a certain amount of water,” explains Ken Ferrie, a Farm Journal Field Agronomist. “How much is a function of soil texture—sand versus clay loam, for example. Some of that soil-water is available for crops and some isn’t.  Unavailable water is held so tightly to clay particles and organic matter so that microbial organisms and plants can’t strip it away.  While fine-textured soils, such as clays and clay loams have more water-holding capacity, they also contain more unavailable water than sandier soil.”

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A sensor is placed in a field to measure water. Photo source

Farmers who use water sensors know exactly what is going on in their fields, and have the capacity to give the right amount of water the plants need. Both under-watering and over-watering stresses the plant and affects the quality and yield of the crop.

In Kansas, three new farms have been established by the Kansas Water Office with a focus on water conservation, in addition to crops and livestock. These farms are owned and farmed by farm families who are working with the state on this irrigation project. Parts of their farms are now demonstration areas that allow the latest irrigation technologies to be installed and tested on a large-scale working farm. The technologies used vary between the three farms, and are tailored to the needs and concerns of each farmer. At the end of the season, the crop yields, field health, and input usage will all be analyzed.

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A pivot at work on one of Kansas’ water technology farms. Photo source

The Chinese are also making breakthroughs in irrigation technologies. The world’s most populated country is also one of the driest, and lacks abundant farmland. Water levels are way down, and inefficiencies in water usage abound. Agriculture is the biggest user of China’s water, so finding ways to conserve this resource is imperative to their economy.

In the past few years, agronomists in China have worked on developing “trace irrigation”, an underground system in which the roots have access to water, and pull only what they need. This new method uses capillary force to provide plants with enough water without drenching the ground from below.

PVC pipes are buried a foot or more under the ground, and the pipes get narrower, and narrower, until they’re like thin straws, with something that looks like a teeny showerhead at the end, with little white threads coming out of it. The plants pull water from these threads.

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A trace irrigation test plot. Photo source

The inventor of the system, Zhu Jun, also developed a method for preventing build-up and clogging of the tiny threads, by using double-membrane filters that will work even at low water pressures.

Zhu’s system has been patented in several countries, and is undergoing testing in China. If it proves itself on a large-scale, it could mean big improvements in irrigation in China and around the world.

We get pretty excited about irrigation around here, and so does most any farmer you talk to. Water is often one of a farmer’s greatest concerns; any improvement in irrigation technology can mean big water savings. Good for our farmers, good for our environment, and good for consumers!

Here’s an interesting article with more information on China’s irrigation projects: http://www.pri.org/stories/2013-06-17/low-water-lunch-chinese-breakthrough-irrigation

 

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