Nov 18

Increasing the Efficiency of Irrigation Water Applications with Smart Sensor Technology

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Sensor networks aid better irrigation management decisions by farmers, increasing the efficiency of water use.

More than 56.6 million acres of land were irrigated in the United States in 2007, of which 56% was irrigated by sprinkler and microirrigation systems. (1)  We are developing advanced sensor technology to precisely monitor plant water use, to allow for better control of irrigation water applications and increase the efficiency of water and nutrient use in nursery and greenhouse operations. By using cost-effective networks of soil and environmental sensors, we are providing growers with real-time information about soil moisture and plant water use on their computers and smart phones at any time. Through ongoing collaborations between plant scientists, engineers, and economists with commercial nursery and greenhouse growers in MD, GA, TN and OH, we have developed new sensor technology and software to automatically control irrigation based on plants’ needs.  Close cooperation among researchers and commercial growers is taking advantage of everyone’s expertise, to ensure rapid progress towards implementation of the science into practice.

During the first three years of this project, commercially-available sensor technology was deployed on these farms, which growers are using to make daily irrigation decisions.  We have already reduced water applications by more than 50%, by making smarter irrigation scheduling decisions.  Improving water management not only reduces nutrient leaching but also improves plant quality and reduces losses from plant diseases.  In the case of one nursery, improving their irrigation practices resulted in a $1 per square foot economic benefit for a specific crop.  These savings from just one small area of this nursery operation would have paid for the sensor network in less than two months.  Given that most nurseries have 10’s to 100’s of acres in production, the economic benefit for individual nurseries is likely to be many thousands of dollars each year.  However, better irrigation not only benefits growers.  By improving ornamental irrigation efficiency by 50%, we can save more than 42 gallons water per person for each of the 310 million people in the US each year (2) that will help conserve the nation’s water resources.  More detailed results from the project can be found at http://www.smart-farms.net/impacts

(1) Kenny et al., 2009.  Estimated use of water in the United States in 2005:  U.S. Geological Survey Circ. 1344, 52 p.

(2) U.S. Dept. Agric, 2009. 2008 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey: Horticultural Operations Data. Nat. Agric. Stat. Serv., Washington, D.C.