The future of farming is being tested in the present just north of Yuma.
And it gives one hope that humankind will be able to meet the challenges of feeding a growing population for a long time to come.
“I am so happy to be at this point, where it was a vision six years ago to seeing it happen, it’s a sweet moment,” said Charles Corey, executive director of the Irrigation Research Foundation Farm.
Continual development of drought-resistant plant seeds still capable of high yields with less water, coupled with technological advancements that allow for highly-precise amounts of water and nutrients, are making for cutting-edge research at the IRF.
“We’re at the cusp of awesome precision,” Corey said last week, during an interview with the Pioneer that included Gary Nock with Agrimeasures, and Erik Tribelhorn with Agri-Inject.
The IRF and its research facility was founded in 1994 by area producers, taking over the former DeKalb seed testing location that had been sitting empty. It is a private, non-profit independent research and demonstration farm.
It has been a viable operation since its inception, providing a place for seed companies to test their products, and conducting studies on various farming methods. The test plots have shown some encouraging results; for example, in 2010 one plot produced more than 300 bushels of corn per acre with only 12-1/2 inches of water.
However, Corey said the IRF has really started to hit its stride over the past several years. Water usage has become more of a focus over the past decade or so, as the region has dealt with meeting Colorado’s obligations to the Republican River Compact. Part of that effort was the state implementing measurement rules a few years ago, requiring all high-capacity wells in Colorado’s Republican River Basin to be equipped with meters, and for the well owners to report their usage each year.
Hundreds of wells — a significant number, but a low percentage of all the wells in the basin — were found to have gone over their permitted amount the first year. The state allowed those owners to make amends for the overuse prior to beginning to implement more stringent penalties.
Suddenly there was much more interest in finding ways to grow irrigated crops with less water. Corey said visits to the IRF’s website surged significantly.
“It was a sweet moment for the research farm,” Corey said.
The facility has seen more than 50-percent growth in the past few years. Nock with Agrimeasures noted the IRF is the only facility of its kind in the whole United States, making it a hot commodity.
Corey said the IRF leaders realized the focus needed to change more toward technological advances, such as lateral move systems and variable rate irrigation. The IRF teamed up with Center Pivot Irrigation, the local Reinke dealer, to install variable rate sprinklers.
It allows for sections of the sprinkler to be turned off and on, to apply more water in one part of the field, and less water elsewhere.
Joining Reinke is Agrimeasures, a company based out of Maryland, with its underground soil moisture probes, and Yuma-based Agri-Inject with its variable-rate fertigation system.
Corey said the IRF is the hub to bring it all together. Now the challenge is to take all the information being culled from these advances and presenting it in a format producers can understand and put to beneficial use.
“We’re helping answer questions and create new ones,” Corey said.
Agrimeasures’ probes have been around for years, but Nock explained that technological advances now allow for users to get real-time data out of the ground and make adjustments on the fly.
Agri-Inject was founded more than 30 years ago on the premise an irrigation system can do more than apply water. Its mission has evolved through the years, and now includes a Reflex panel that allows for the variable-rate injection of nutrients.
“The more precise irrigation becomes, the more valuable of a tool an irrigation system becomes,” Tribelhorn said.
It allows for applying nutrients when needed and in the right amounts, which can vary from one part of a field to another
The IRF has smaller pivots than regular fields in the area, so the expansion to an irrigated field east of the facility allows for testing with a regular- size pivot. Agrimeasures has probes all over the irrigated field, and Agri-Inject has a Reflex panel set up at the motor for the center pivot, along with a blender for applying a cocktail of what the plant needs besides water. The Reflex panel is the control panel to apply what needs to be injected. The system also incorporates a variable motor that helps reduce electrical usage.
Nock said the concept of precision agriculture can be applied for any plant because water and nutrient management is always the key.
The sleeve of Agrimeasures’ probes is 37 inches long, with the water sleeve 12 inches in to the ground. There are five sensors under the surface collecting data at different depths, which is transmitted in real time to cell phone towers thanks to an antenna near the probe.“Trust me, it is pretty high tech inside that plastic tube,” Nock said.
Producers can keep up on that data on a cell phone, tablet, laptop or even computer at home. Sprinklers or a section of a sprinkler, can be turned off or on depending upon the need, as well as applying nutrients, without having to be at the site. Data is gathered every 15 minutes. Nock said the goal is to change a field’s “prescription” every 15 minutes if needed.
“It takes false judgements out of it completely,” he said.
For example, a farmer might think a weak-looking area needs more water, when in fact it might be something else. Nock could sit at his computer in Maryland and turn off a sprinkler here if the data from the probes show the field has sufficient water.
The end concept is that water application and nutrient injection can be monitored at all times, and adjusted by the system on a continual basis, making for an extremely beneficial use of all inputs, while also maintaining strong yields. It can help conserve water resources, protect soil from over- application of fertilizer and pesticides, and produce the food needed to meet a growing demand into the future.
And the testing that is intended to provide the proof to help convince farmers this is the wave of the future, is being done right here at the IRF. In fact, the facility’s annual Farm Show is coming up next month, August 12-13, where one can learn much more.
“It’s taken a lot of cooperation to get to this point,” Corey said.
There is still a lot of work left to be done.