Improvements for efficient water use aided by technological tools in the fieldWritten by Natasha Wheeler
“I don’t believe there is a silver bullet for solving the world’s agricultural problems, but technology could be a key player,” notes Trimble Navigation Marketing Director Chris van der Loo.
Food security, production costs and other challenges continue to increase as the world progresses towards a projected global population of 9 billion people by the year 2050.
“We live in an age of advancing technology, which we can use as one of the key elements to help feed the world and improve food availability for the masses,” he explains.
Van der Loo works specifically with agricultural water solutions at Trimble, which include land forming, water drainage and irrigation technology systems.
Shaping the land
“Starting with land forming solutions, we have the ability to go out and get a highly accurate, three-dimensional model of the surface of a farmer’s field. From there, we can do some analysis and look at the contours of the field,” he explains.
By assessing low-lying areas or steep slopes, producers can determine water runoff and soil erosion patterns. Next, they can determine which modifications would improve irrigation or drainage in the field.
“We will then do minimal cut-fill or earth work design for that field,” he continues.
With GPS technology, machinery can be controlled to precisely move dirt and create a specified surface pattern within the field.
“We can get a variable slope field with minimal disturbance of the topsoil to ensure that water will run off as efficiently as possible without ponding in the field,” he says.
Further technology can be used to establish water drainage systems in growing areas.
“Using old laser technologies, a drain gets put in at a constant slope, which means there is a variable depth between the surface of the field and the drainpipe. This means nutrients are not being taken up evenly by the crop within the field,” van der Loo comments.
Using newer GPS technology, producers can install the drainage system with variable slope to optimal depths, allowing roots to absorb as many nutrients as possible.
“Another technology occurring right now in the drainage world is the use of controlled drainage where structures are placed at the ends of the drainpipes to hold water back, particularly over the winter months, to ensure that nitrates and other nutrients are not being drained out of the soil when there are no crops in the field,” he adds.
In the case of drought, similar technology can be applied to hold water in the soil, keeping it available for crops.
“When we talk about irrigation, there are multiple pieces of data that can contribute to how much water can be applied or needs to be applied over a field for what a crop truly needs,” continues van der Loo.
Topography information, for example, indicates where water may run off or pool, depending on high or low lying areas of the land.
“Another piece of data is soil characteristics. More water will be held in heavier soils, and there will be more water available to the crop in lighter, sandier soils,” he comments.
Electromagnetic mapping can provide producers with information about soil variation and combined with physical soil samples from specific locations, a prescription can be created for variable rate irrigation.
“We can put technology on a center pivot that allows us to control each nozzle independently and ultimately allows us to apply a specific application depth, defined by management zones within the field, based on what the crop actually needs,” van der Loo remarks.
This can help to ensure that crops receive sufficient water throughout a field, as well as ensure that crops are not over watered, causing saturated soils or leeching of nutrients.
“We are seeing a value added to farmers who are growing potatoes,” he shares as an example. “Uniformity of a potato from a moisture perspective is really important because they are stored. If we have too much moisture in potatoes, we end up with rot at the storage facility.”
In New Zealand, dairy farmers are using variable rate irrigation to prevent ponding in fields where the cows graze, and in Texas, producers are using the same technology to make efficient use of their water in cotton fields.
“By optimizing water application based upon underlying soil conditions and topography, we are seeing yield increases in grains, in some cases 15 to 20 percent, just by not over-watering or under-watering the field for what the crop really needs,” van der Loo states.
Combining various technologies within their fields, producers can potentially use water more efficiently while increasing yields and profitability.
“Farmers run a business. They have to increase farm production to stay competitive. Regulations are changing and water quality is anther driver for putting technology into this space,” says van der Loo.