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Water savings critical for rice profitability

USDA agronomist speaks to rice producers at irrigation field day.

Joe Massey says most rice farmers are doing a good job with water management, but there are some areas where they can improve by reducing costs and helping their bottom lines.

One of those areas is moisture sensors and automation, says Massey, research agronomist with the USDA-ARS Delta Water Management Research Unit, which is based at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

“We operate under the assumption that as we try to implement some of these innovative irrigation practices that farmers will need some help with automation,” said Massey, who spoke during one of the tour stops at the Mississippi County, Ark., Rice Irrigation Field Day at Florenden Farms near Blytheville, Ark.

“I know there are a number of companies that are operating under the same assumption,” he said. (One of those companies, Aquarius Farm Controls, demonstrated its technology that shuts off irrigation wells when the moisture reaches a pre-determined level at one of the other stops on the Rice Irrigation Field Day.)

One of the things researchers are trying to determine is the least number of water sensors that might be required to manage that field in an optimal fashion, while also reducing costs, and associated tasks with the technology.

He said USDA-ARS researchers had two multiple inlet rice irrigation or MIRI fields located across the turn row from the tour stop that had one moisture sensor per rice paddy.

“We know we could not economically afford to have a sensor in each paddy in a field,” he said, “but we can start taking each of those out data-wise to determine which of those sensors would most closely match the optimal management of that flood in the field.

“In doing that, we’ve realized what we’ve known along is that one of the benefits of multiple inlet irrigation is that we can balance those flows into each paddy. Without doing that, we would have to have a sensor in each paddy if we’re going to automate that.”

Researchers are also finding that cascade floods, or allowing water to flow from an irrigation well down through each bay in the rice field, may be easier to automate than other types of rice irrigation.

“Most people do a fine job of irrigating, but we want to see if we can help the cascade farmer better manage their irrigation,” Massey said. “It may be that you can place a moisture sensor in the next to the last paddy of the field and use it to cut off the water flow before you have water running out of the end of the field.”

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