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K-State Research and Extension

Drop by precious drop: Researchers and farmers work together

From Kansas City to Liberal, we’re reliant on farmers to help grow the world’s food supply and contribute to the $62 billion that agriculture brings to the state’s economy. But growing crops requires water, which is in short supply and growing scarcer in parts of the state.

Kansas State University researchers and Kansas farmers are collaborating to determine if a new technology, mobile drip irrigation (MDI), works well enough to merit the upfront purchase and maintenance costs of installation on farms on a broad scale. 

Mobile drip irrigation brings together existing technology — center pivot systems that are highly visible in some parts of the state — with new hose-like products called drip irrigation lines, said Danny Rogers, K-State Research and Extension irrigation engineer. 

With the widely used center-pivot systems, water is sprayed either above or within the canopy of the crop that’s being irrigated. Some of the water stays on leaves or is lost to evaporation before it reaches the ground, possibly as much as 20 percent. By adding drip lines, which drag along the soil surface, less water is lost to evaporation and more is available for plants’ roots.

“It started with a question,” extension water resource engineer Jonathan Aguilar said of how K-State scientists and farmers began working together to test the new irrigation method. He and other K-State researchers were already studying the new technology on a limited scale on university property near Garden City. But first one farmer, then another asked the researchers if the technology worked as well as manufacturers claimed — especially for large-scale farming.  
Ensuing discussions, which included the Kansas Water Office and Kansas Department of Agriculture, led to establishing three water-technology demonstration farms in 2016 — all on privately owned farmland. K-State is now conducting multiyear MDI equipment studies with various crops and soil types on two farms near Garden City and one near Larned. 

Garden City overlies the Ogallala Aquifer, a massive underground water source that is increasingly being depleted, and Larned is over the Big Bend Prairie Aquifer. 
“Part of the work is focused on education,” Aguilar said. To help show farmers and others how the technology may be used and shed light on the research that’s underway, K-State Research and Extension and the Kansas Water Office hosted field days on the three farms in 2016. The events drew more than 350 people, about twice as many at each site than a normal educational event. More such events are planned in upcoming years. 

Larned farmer Richard Wenstrom stressed the importance of K-State’s mobile drip irrigation research: 

“With this drip technology — if you can capture the 20 percent lost to evaporation — the plant roots receive the entire water application instead of 80 percent.”