What is in this article?:
- Remote sensing offers water hopes as drought lingers
- Remote sensing
- Encouraging results
- In the U.S. West and Southwest, large-scale farms struggle to survive economically amid chronic drought conditions and increasing costs for surface water.
- Utilizing high tech solutions to improve yield with less irrigation water is a challenge taken seriously by scientists at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s U.S. Arid Land Agricultural Research Center at Maricopa, Ariz.
- Scientists are utilizing an arsenal of high tech remote sensing tools to determine specific plant needs in large-scale production agriculture.
DOUG HUNSAKER, Agricultural Research Service agricultural engineer, works on precise irrigation scheduling in a cotton trial (ARS photo).
The early results from the Arizona field trials are encouraging.
“Results suggest farmers can use less water and achieve similar or better yields by scheduling irrigations based on remote sensing observations versus calendar watering,” French says.
“The next step is to improve these methods to achieve similar results consistently for small and large fields, and under normal and water stress conditions.”
Tying all these details together is the challenge for Kelly Thorp, ARS agricultural engineer.
Thorp is working with computer software and complex algorithms to translate the information into practical language that farmers can utilize to make improved bottom line decisions on irrigation and other crop management practices.
“We are really good at collecting data,” Thorp says. “The question is, how do we integrate all of the information to make decisions that improve water use, crop yield, or return on investment? That is the missing piece at this point.”
Another question is, who will actually decipher the information for on-farm use? Farmers already have a long list of daily responsibilities.
“A farmer’s time is limited, and they don’t have much time to review and choose different scenarios on the computer,” says Thorp. “It’s possible that a new industry could evolve to transfer the information into farm-specific use.”
With the inevitability of limited water sources down the road globally, ARS Geneticist Terry Coffelt is testing new crops for arid agriculture production which could replace crops traditionally grown in arid regions. He’s eagerly awaiting test results on 16 varietal lines of camelina, a low water use crop grown mostly as a dryland crop in marginal soil.
Coffelt is also researching guayule, an industrial latex and resin crop, used to make latex rubber gloves for those allergic to Hevea latex.
The scientists concur that the ARS Arizona-based research has great application potential in other regions of the country with different soils, weather conditions, and input requirements.
ARS has labs throughout the nation which could localize the technology to gain widespread benefits.