KCARE Research Today

Letting it all soak in: Water Technology Farms lead the way in water conservation

On a sun-drenched August day, a group of farmers, sales representatives, government officials and university researchers were gathered, not in a conference room, but in the middle of a cornfield. Under the unrelenting sun, everyone had one thing on their minds: water, and how to use less of it.

This is a Water Technology Farm, one of the working farms sprinkled across the state whose owners have volunteered to focus on water conservation, in addition to crops and livestock. University researchers often tout new irrigation technologies as efficient or cost-effective, but farmers never really know how those technologies – so triumphant in a controlled experimental field – will perform in their own fields. With Water Technology Farms, producers can see first-hand how the latest irrigation technologies work in a real-world setting.

Crowds gather to learn more about water-saving technologies near Larned, Kansas. Photo courtesy Richard Rockel, Kansas Water Office

At six different Water Technology Farm field days across the state, K-State extension water resource engineer Jonathan Aguilar explained to the public how these farms work: by showcasing technologies such as mobile drip irrigation (MDI), evapotranspiration (ET)-based scheduling tools, soil water sensors and other tools, producers can see visible proof about how each of these experimental methodologies can assist them in their efforts toward water conservation.

“It’s important to address all of the farmers’ issues regarding water irrigation systems and the ways that you can properly increase the efficiency in terms of water use,” said Aguilar. These field days are a good way to do that, because producers can speak directly to researchers, irrigation company representatives, and other specialists, he said.

Richard Wenstrom, a member of the Water Protection Association of Central Kansas (WaterPACK) helped to establish one technology farm located just south of Larned, owned by Innovative Livestock Solutions (ILS). This farm was one of the first to volunteer for the Water Technology Farm program; this year, there are 15 Kansas farms utilizing new and experimental solutions for water conservation. Six of these, including the WaterPACK/ILS farm, are partnered with K-State. For the August 14 field day at the WaterPACK/ILS farm, more than 70 people gathered beneath one of the farm’s massive center pivot irrigation systems to learn more about how real farmers apply water-saving technologies.

“We farm where we live,” said Wenstrom, pointing out that water conservation affects everyone in the community. This is especially true in many parts of Kansas, where the Ogallala Aquifer, a main source for irrigation, is depleting faster than it can replenish. Farmers like Wenstrom, along with K-State researchers and the state government, are hoping that field days like this one will inspire more producers to embrace water-saving ideas.

“This is the way we’re going to get things done,” said Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office. KWO provides financial support for those farmers implementing these new technologies, and Streeter stresses that these public/private partnerships are the driving force behind the Water Technology Farms’ success.

The ILS Water Technology Farm represents the confluence of many partnerships: WaterPACK, K-State researchers, producers, government entities, irrigation companies, soil water sensor dealers and many others. The focus of the ILS farm is to evaluate the performance of MDI on a higher volume well in an area outside of the Ogallala Aquifer, but with sandy soils. They planted two corn circles: one has spray nozzles planted in typical straight rows, and the other – using circular planting – uses a combination of spray nozzles and MDI. The farm uses weather-based and soil water sensors for irrigation scheduling. The sensors below the surface help growers to make decisions more quickly and accurately.

So far, producers are happy with the results. Even with reduced irrigation, the ILS experiment harvested 235 bushels of corn last year. They are hoping to maintain – or exceed –  that level of productivity this year.

“Over the years, we already have the big gulps of [irrigation] efficiency improvements, and now we’re working on the little sips,” said Danny Rogers, a professor in K-State’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering. The combination of irrigation technologies, soil sensors, aerial photography, and other technologies will hopefully make the difference.

This type of research is very difficult, because it’s not in a controlled environment, Rogers explained. Results are dependent on real-world events: variable rainfall, changing soil types. At the moment, the ILS farm received a lot of early rain, which made a difference for how irrigation was used later in the season. Next year, conditions might be totally different. The advantage to the Water Technology Farms will become apparent during those years when rains are scarce, according to Rogers.

“Time will tell,” said Rogers. “The real test is always when we harvest.”

Learn more about other Water Technology Farms across Kansas.

 

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