For growers, integrating new systems, technologies, tools and strategies into an existing irrigation management plan presents several risks and challenges. It’s often a process of trial and error rather than a unilateral decision. Besides added cost and lack of available information on new irrigation tools and strategies, producers are hesitant to rely on them without hands-on experience or feel confident in the potential return on investment these tools and strategies may bring.
On the other hand, researchers, extension agents and tech consultants struggle to help growers adopt precision irrigation technology. Despite extensive research efforts, incentives and outreach, a 2019 survey by the United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service shows that adoption has been slower than expected. One reason may be that tech adoption varies at a regional scale. For example, Nebraska farmers are leading the adoption of soil moisture monitors, while in Kansas, scheduling technologies are the fastest to be adopted.
For both growers and extension researchers, the tools and technologies overwhelming the market mean an enormous number of options and practices to test. Individual researchers with a limited amount of resources and time can only recommend a small scope of possibilities.
The Irrigation Innovation Consortium consists of a network of university partners, researchers, manufacturers, consultants and other experts that test, improve and study the use of advanced irrigation management tools and technologies. Through its network, the IIC is able to develop a systematic approach to irrigation innovation strategies, while taking into consideration both the technical and social challenges. The IIC has invested in more than 40 research projects, including national surveys looking into the economic impact of the irrigation industry, the irrigation industry’s future research needs and the incentives and challenges of adopting precision irrigation technology.
IIC was founded in 2018 with a $5 million dollar grant from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. With matching support, IIC dedicated an investment of $10 million into advanced irrigation research between 2018 and 2022.
In 2022, the IIC announced its 5th annual call for proposals, prioritizing research focused on improving irrigation technology, data synthesis to inform irrigation decision-making, clarifying water-use benchmarks and targets, and quantifying potential benefits of advanced irrigation management.
Included in the funded 2022 research is a project furthering the Testing Agriculture Performance Solutions program, which is dedicated to helping irrigators integrate advanced irrigation systems and strategies into their irrigation programs by mitigating the risks associated with adoption.
TAPS is an innovative program that engages crop producers around resource use efficiency and profitability. It hosts real-life farm management competitions that evaluate profitability, water and nitrogen efficiency, and the highest yields in crop production. This approach encourages active learning among contestants. Historically, the winners of these categories receive a $2,000 reward.
“Through TAPS, participants actively compare strategies and tools instead of sitting in a classroom or workshop looking at graphs or aerial imagery,” says Jason Warren, professor of plant and soil sciences at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma, who started a TAPS program in that state. “They aren’t installing soil moisture sensors and getting discouraged after one growing season. Even the technologically advanced producers are learning and growing in this program and figuring out what to invest in for their operation.”
Competing teams of growers are given three randomized test plots at research stations. The teams control the seeding rate, crop variety, crop insurance and marketing decisions, and results are extrapolated as if for a full-size operation of several thousand acres. A wide variety of data is available to them at the research stations such as from imagery, soil moisture probes and plant sensors. The participants use the data to support their management decisions on irrigation and nitrogen applications. These activities help growers gain confidence in using novel irrigation technology and strategies to inform management practices without risking their yields or investments.
TAPS competitions show that there is more than one route to profitability. While some contestants excel in yield or farm management, effective marketing has proven over several years to be an important factor in overall returns.
The management decisions from participants generate datasets that are also beneficial to researchers in helping them deepen their understanding of how input timing and quantity affects efficiency and profitability. This strengthens the relationships between growers, researchers and extension specialists and fosters continuous engagement.
Since its launch in 2017, the TAPS program has swiftly grown with hundreds of participants in Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. While the TAPS program has broadly shared competition results, only a small amount of the research-grade data has been developed. With funding from the IIC, a multistate team of researchers will organize and analyze biophysical, social and economic datasets generated from Nebraska and Oklahoma TAPS participants from the past five growing seasons.
Rather than focusing on a single technology or strategy, this project will highlight and clarify the value of engaging diverse irrigation sector stakeholders through programs like TAPS to catalyze faster and broader knowledge gains and integration of advanced irrigation practices.
This project aims to evaluate the influence of irrigation management practices on water-use benchmarks and greenhouse gas calculations concerning water availability, risk tolerance and energy costs from pumping. It also identifies the benefits and challenges of water conservation management and technology to farm operations and outlines the gaps and outcomes between best management practices and producers’ decision-making.
Researchers will evaluate the interrelated roles and responsibilities of the industry and the irrigation sector at large, land-grant institutions and government agencies in driving adoption and understanding of the economic and environmental benefits of water conservation and profitable practices. Engaging diverse stakeholders and harnessing underutilized, high-resolution data like that gathered by the TAPS program are important points in this process.
Will tech adoption or social change be the answer to sustaining agriculture communities in the High Plains? Due to growing constraints on water resources and declines aggravated by climate change, shifting to improve efficiency and conservation is critical to sustaining irrigation-dependent communities and economies across the semi-arid High Plains. Supporting the region’s producers in remaining profitable and productive while using less water is critical to the vitality of these communities.
Advancing irrigation technology is essential to supporting High Plains producers, but it might be said that there is a greater need to help growers overcome the logistical challenges of integrating these technologies into existing systems.
Programs like TAPS actively engage growers and address these practical challenges while directing the future of advanced irrigation research to find the balance between furthering technology adoption and encouraging social change.