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Research / Discovery

Research is examining water savings from different farming strategies during drought

April 11, 2013
by Coleman Cornelius

A team of Colorado State University agricultural and environmental scientists hopes to pinpoint best management practices in crop production to help conserve water in times of drought, and their project will provide farmers with an online tool to calculate water savings gained from different strategies.

The benefits of agricultural water management are striking in this aerial view of the Gunnison River in Dominguez Canyon south of Grand Junction.The research project is supported with a grant of $883,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Adaptation to Drought Conservation Innovation Grant. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., announced the funding last week.

Systematic approach

“We are taking a systematic approach to understand how to effectively manage water in the face of scarcity,” said Neil Hansen, associate professor in the CSU Department of Soil and Crop Sciences and project leader. “We want to maximize crop per drop, meaning crop yield per gallon of water. Water is short, and we’ve got to get as much as we can from the little we’ve got.”

CSU researchers are examining crop-management practices that will save water and improve yields during drought.The research is unique in its involvement of agricultural businesses and scientists from multiple disciplines. Assisting from the private sector will be Dupont Pioneer, Regenesis Management, Biochar Solutions, John Deere Water and 21st Century Ag Equipment. The project also engages area farmers through the West Greeley Conservation District and the Lower South Platte Irrigation Research Farm.

Adaptation to drought

CSU researchers will conduct field demonstrations to examine how different approaches to soil, crop and irrigation management affect water conservation, yields and system adaptation to drought.

The project will examine water-saving benefits gained with adjustments in:

  • Crop management, including use of cover cropping and drought-tolerant crop varieties;
  • Soil management, including conservation tillage and soil amendments; and
  • Irrigation management, including scheduling and variable rate irrigation, which uses space-based technologies to tailor water application to varying needs within a field.
  • The project also will employ sensors to track soil moisture and crop stress.

New irrigation technologies help farmers conserve water in times of droughtNew conservation technologies  

“Colorado’s agricultural producers have been at the forefront of new conservation technologies that help more efficiently produce food, fiber and fuel for the country largely due to CSU’s leadership in agricultural research,” Bennet said. “This grant will help CSU continue to develop new ways for farmers and ranchers to protect their land, crops and water.”

The researchers will modify an existing online tool to help farmers understand how management practices will improve their water use. 

The CSU team also will provide research results to farmers through field days, fact sheets and a web site; the researchers will develop a technical water-management guide for the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service.

“Ultimately, we want to help producers assess, ‘Am I using my water at maximum productivity?’” Hansen said.

One of thirteen nationwide

The CSU research team was one of thirteen nationwide to receive federal Conservation Innovation Grants to develop approaches and technologies that will help producers adapt to extreme climate changes that cause drought. The USDA awarded a total of $5.3 million to these research projects.

"USDA is working diligently to help American farmers and ranchers rebound from last year's drought and prepare for future times of climatic extremes," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release.