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Extension > Source > Fall-Winter 2014 > Innovative irrigation

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Innovative irrigation

John Stamper

Josh Stamper, Extension irrigation specialist, helps farmers reduce costs and conserve water by sampling soil water content to develop an irrigation schedule.

Smart tools increase precision in agriculture

Minnesota's agricultural crops contribute billions of dollars to our economy, but that depends on good yields. Annually, some 600,000 acres of the state's cropland use irrigation.

Potatoes are one example.

Paul Gray is a potato farmer in Clear Lake. "Potatoes have a shallow root system, and the soils they are grown in don't always hold water well," says Gray, executive secretary for the Minnesota Area II Potato Research & Promotion Council.

Extension has worked with farmers like Gray for nearly four decades to develop and fine-tune the tools that help them make the best management decisions for their crops while preventing runoff of excess nitrogen and other nutrients. "There are trade-offs and challenges, but our climate variations require well-managed irrigation to help grow affordable food," says Mark Seeley, Extension climatologist.

Jerry Wright, an Extension irrigation specialist who is now retired, helped develop the "checkbook method" of irrigation scheduling. Just as a checkbook register is used to balance deposits and withdrawals, the crop producer can use the tool to track soil moisture inputs and deficits. Such tools helped create the precision agriculture movement.

Proper setup and calibration of a new irrigation system is an integral part of good water management.

Josh Stamper, Extension's new irrigation specialist, is evolving the "checkbook" into the realm of high tech. The principles are the same as the "checkbook" balancing, but new technology brings more precision to decision-making, and more modern tools for the farmer. That's good for water quality in the land of 10,000 lakes—and downstream. "I'm using the latest weather data from weather stations that measure crop water use, to create irrigation scheduling programs that automatically update every time you open the program on your computer—or, eventually, on your smart phone," says Stamper. "This conserves water."

Other researchers in Extension and the University's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences are discovering how to make the most of the precious resource. One innovation employs polymer coatings that allow fertilizer to diffuse slowly, and not get washed away by rain.

Alan Peterson, president of the Irrigators Association of Minnesota, has watched the technology change from traveling guns to water-conserving, low-pressure systems. "We're working with Extension now on soil moisture sensor research," he says. "It's a constant evolution toward greater efficiency."

The University of Minnesota is one of 12 universities named to the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force to help curb water pollution.

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