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Microgravity irrigation studied for increased water conservation

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The microgravity irrigation system can be used for numerous crops, such as chile, onion, alfalfa and pecans – all while maintaining low water pressure.
Researchers study cost savings compared to traditional drip irrigation.

Sometimes, less is more. That holds especially true for one New Mexico State University researcher who is using the latest technology involving plant water-use efficiency to preserve the quality of life for the people of southern New Mexico.

Manoj Shukla, professor of soil physics in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, began studying the impacts of water-use efficiency innovation 10 years ago.

manoj-head-shot-nmsu.jpgManoj Shukla, professor of soil physics in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, New Mexico State University. (Photo by Manoj Shukla)

“We know that water scarcity is a big problem for us here, especially in the southern New Mexico region,” Shukla said “Initially, I was asked if I really wanted to start the micro-gravity drip project because of COVID-19 and we didn’t know what could happen, but I wanted to start because it is important to the state, the university – and we made sure to take all the necessary precautions.”

The project is a collaboration with two Israeli companies: N-Drip water solutions and Tal-Ya water technologies. Shukla said N-Drip created a microgravity irrigation system that does not require pressurized pumps and uses less water than traditional drip irrigation methods.

“The way the system works is that the water – whether you’re pumping water or it’s surface water – comes to a holding tank that requires only a small head of about 20 inches for water to flow through drip tapes all the way to the end of the field; that is the gravity,” Shukla explained.

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The project is a collaboration with two Israeli companies: N-Drip water solutions and Tal-Ya water technologies. Shukla said N-Drip created a microgravity irrigation system that does not require pressurized pumps, which uses less water than traditional drip irrigation methods. (Photo by Jon Boren)

Shukla said there are many advantages to using these drip irrigation systems, especially for people with smaller farms. The system can be used for numerous crops, such as chile, onion, alfalfa and pecans – all while maintaining low water pressure.

At the start of this research, the team divided a 2.5-acre field into two, and planted 108 pecan trees on one and 16 rows chile on the other. “It was surprising to us, because after planting the first year, pecans go through frost, and they come back again when break happens. We were keeping a goal of getting at least 90% of our trees back next year. We only lost two trees; every other tree came back. That really showed that the system works very effectively,” he said.

Shukla said this research on the system, now in its third year in operation, is helping to show how long this system can stay in this type of soil and keep working.

The data from the chile acreage was also promising. “Our initial estimates are that we use very close to 800 millimeters of water, which is much less than you use when you have chile under furrow irrigation that could be anywhere from 900 to 1200 millimeters. So, we were able to apply anywhere from 100 to 300 millimeters less water,” Shukla said.

The system also boasts cost savings compared to the pressurized drip irrigation system – more than $1,000-per-acre difference.

Mitra Trays

In the same project, polypropylene trays called Mitra Trays, manufactured by Tal-Ya water companies, were placed over the pecan tree roots. Shukla said these trays cover soil around plants to improve the microclimate in the root zone.

“The advantage of the trays is if any precipitation is taking place, the tray directs all the water towards the tree and most of that water stays in the root zone,” Shukla said. “These trays cover the soil and create a microclimate underneath which is very good. That conserves moisture, the temperature fluctuations are not that high, and there is less evaporation. Therefore, you are conserving the water and no weed growth takes place because of the trays.”

While these NMSU research sites are open for the community to explore how these systems work, they’re also used as demonstration sites for undergraduate and graduate students.

“We want NMSU undergraduate and graduate students as well as middle and high schoolers to know where their food is grown. That’s a big challenge for us, to make sure people understand that food is grown at the farm,” Shukla said. “People should also know that water is a scarce commodity here in the state of New Mexico, as well as parts of Arizona, California, Oklahoma and Texas. People do need to understand this so that they can use the water much more efficiently, even inside their house.”

Shukla said the goal is to continue using these tools to improve water-use efficiency in southern New Mexico and expand this practice throughout the region to other farmers.

“We want this to spread at NMSU’s research farm and for local farmers to utilize this. Some farmers have shown interest and have come to NMSU’s field days to see the systems and felt like this is something they could use,” Shukla said. “This has become more popular in Arizona, Mississippi, California, and it has slowly been expanding in the U.S. and internationally.”

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TAGS: Water drought
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