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Droughts may increase variable-rate irrigation use

Droughts may increase variable-rate irrigation use Fertilizer does it. Seeds do it. Why not water? To date, precision agriculture has focused its cost saving and production maximizing variable-rate technologies on major crop inputs like fertilizer and seed. Ironically, the most important and precious resource needed by any growing crop is water.

Variable-rate irrigation technologies have by no means hit the mainstream as many producers do not even fully know what it is or what it can do for them.  That may have to change—rapidly.

Pumping water is expensive and is not getting any cheaper. Plus, Mother Nature isn’t helping the situation as headlines about drought continue to spread across the country. Parts of western Kansas and Oklahoma are facing another poor wheat crop because of continued drought conditions. California is the driest it’s been in more than 100 years with no relief in sight. And in Nebraska, some irrigation water districts have now placed new limits on the amount of water that can be applied in a single crop year.

When water becomes scarce, almost all fingers point to agriculture as the scapegoat. Such accusations are with good reason as it takes a lot of water to grow food. For example, according to a recent article published in the Los Angeles Times, producing just one ounce of wheat bread requires 14.44 gallons of water. Meanwhile, it takes 21.84 gallons to produce an ounce of protein that goes into your healthy soy burger, which pales in comparison to the 106.28 gallons required to create an ounce of your favorite steak.

According to the most recent numbers, there are 55.3 million irrigated crop acres in the United States. Common sense tells us that every one of those acres does not require the same amount of water to grow a particular crop—just like it doesn’t take the same amount of fertilizer or seeds. Variable-rate irrigation should be the next logical step in the evolution of precision agriculture, but it seems like it is taking the slow train in getting to mainstream agriculture. Why?

Part of the problem of implementation comes back to the old chicken and the egg conundrum. Deploying VRI on a field with a center pivot requires the collection of some very specific precision field data such as detailed soil electro-conductivity (EC) maps and also ultra-accurate topographical information. Then, if by chance they do have such information, many growers’ existing center pivots may not currently be equipped with technology to actually implement a VRI prescription, or even if the technology is available, it may not even be utilized.

This chicken and egg dilemma is an ongoing issue within precision agriculture. Too many times technology and the agronomy to make it work are worlds apart. Those that sell the technology do not fully understand the agronomy needed to really make it work. Meanwhile, such lack of knowledge is a two-way street as many farmers and agronomists fail to exploit the potential of the technology at their disposal.

VRI has many benefits beyond just water savings. It saves energy—lots of it. In fact, many electric companies are now starting to look at possibly costsharing the retro-fitting of existing systems with such VRI technology. Regardless of such incentives, the technology is ready for the mainstream, and new headlines and new governmental policies are only going to get us there that much faster.

It is obvious that all parties, from irrigation dealers, agronomists and growers, need to start preparing NOW because there’s a lot of precision work to be done in the fields before turning on the tap of this technology called VRI.

(Source – http://www.agprofessional.com/resource-centers/precision-ag/precision-ag-insights-droughts-may-increase-variable-rate-irrigation)

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