More Crop Per Drop

09:26AM Aug 21, 2014
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Water use and nutrient use efficiency gains are important to protecting water resources

By J.J. Grow
CEO, Verdesian Life Sciences

With another 2.3 billion people on the planet by 2050, there is no question that our world’s land and water resources will be under severe pressure. As demand for food grows, agriculture will be challenged to sustainably increase food production.

An analysis by the International Food Policy Research Institute indicates that more than half the world’s population and approximately half of global grain production will be at risk due to water stress by 2050 if no changes are made to the way water is managed.

While the demand for food is escalating, changing climate patterns – more frequent and extreme weather events, rising temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns – are aggravating agriculture’s ability to produce food for more than 9 billion people. Drought and water shortages are projected to affect more areas of the world, including areas that are already short of water. It’s projected that within the next 50 years; nearly 70 percent of the groundwater could be pumped out of the High Plains Aquifer, which extends from Wyoming and South Dakota to the Texas Panhandle. The aquifer supplies 30 percent of the groundwater used for irrigation in the United States.

Irrigation has dramatically enhanced food production in semi-arid and arid regions so it’s imperative that we improve irrigation and agronomic management practices to sustain water resources. It’s about getting more crop per drop.

Researchers are finding that nutrient use efficiency and water use efficiency are closely intertwined. Each day, a plant has a fixed amount of energy to use. If the plant is not stressed and is efficiently taking in nutrients with water, then the plant has more energy left to produce more end product: grain, fruit or vegetable.

Interestingly, overwatering can be just as detrimental to a plant as under watering it. "We don’t have the luxury of watering crops indiscriminately," said David Lankford of agriMeasures, an ag irrigation research company. "We need to monitor how and when plants take up water and nutrients, and manage those inputs in a just-in-time and as-needed basis."

Using information from wireless data loggers and capacitance probes that collect moisture readings and fertilizer movement in the field, researchers have been able to cut water use in half, improve fertilizer efficiency and increase crop yields and quality in vegetable, fruit and cereal crops.

The Irrigation Research Foundation (IRF) in Yuma, Colorado, has demonstrated that increasing nutrient availability and reducing plant stress results in better water use efficiency, better nitrogen use efficiency and higher yields.

Several years ago, IRF researchers broke the 300-bushel-per-acre corn yield barrier on some very poor sandhill soil by spoon-feeding water and nutrients to the crop. That yield was achieved with only 18 inches of total water, half of the usual amount, and less than 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre. Nitrogen use efficiency was improved from the traditional 1.2 bushels per pound of nitrogen to 2 bushels per pound of nitrogen.

IRF research shows that using a nitrogen stabilizer amplified the corn plant’s efficiency. The stabilizer kept more nitrogen available longer, resulting in more efficient nitrogen uptake, higher yields and less water per unit of production. In other words, more crop per drop.

J.J. Grow is chief executive officer of Verdesian Life Sciences, Cary, North Carolina, which is focused on products and technologies to improve plant health, water use efficiency and nutrient use efficiency to maximize yields and sustainably produce food for a burgeoning global population. In early July, Verdesian announced that it had acquired SFP, Leawood, Kansas. SFP is now operating as a Verdesian Life Sciences company.