LINCOLN, Neb. -- A University of Nebraska-Lincoln computer program that helps farmers facing limited water supplies to make irrigation decisions will be expanded and enhanced under a new grant from the USDA.

The $885,000 grant will allow UNL researchers to conduct field research that will refine and improve the Water Optimizer, a tool that enables producers with limited water to evaluate what crops to grow, how many acres to irrigate and how much water to apply. Improvements will make the Water Optimizer more versatile and more widely applicable.

USDA's Risk Management Agency is funding the project, titled "Enhancing Irrigation Management Tools and Developing a Decision System for Managing Limited Irrigation Supplies."

The first version of Water Optimizer, released by UNL in 2005, is useful but limited in scope. It covers the principal crops in Nebraska but doesn't address all of the critical risk-management issues surrounding limited water, said Gary Hergert, a soil scientist at the university's Panhandle Research and Extension Center at Scottsbluff.

Hergert will work with a multidiscipinary team from the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources including Paul Burgener, also from the Panhandle center; Derrel Martin of biological systems engineering; and Ray Supalla of agricultural economics.

The departments involved will work to refine the Water Optimizer by:

  • improving the tool's function for crops grown in the semiarid High Plains, including canola, camelina, crambe, brown mustard, chickpeas, dry beans and sunflowers;

  • expanding the tool's geographic coverage area to additional counties in Nebraska and including irrigated areas in Colorado and Kansas;

  • developing the capability to evaluate risk-management alternatives on a "whole-farm" basis, as well as field by field;

  • developing the capability to determine the best strategies for managing multi-year water allocations;

  • incorporating information for evaluating how irrigation system improvements affect decisions.

  • "We want to take a whole farm view" in considering how to manage the available water supplies, Hergert said. "How do you divide that water among crops on your farm to make the most money? That's a step above where we are now on Water Optimizer."

    This grant is an example of the leadership UNL researchers are providing to address complex and important water management issues for Nebraska and the region, said Prem Paul, UNL vice chancellor for research. "Developing the technology to help our farmers make the most of every drop of available water is important to the state's overall economic well-being."

    The Water Optimizer was developed by Supalla, UNL agricultural economist, and Martin, UNL biological systems engineer, in response to several years of drought across the state and to farmers in several regions facing restrictions from irrigation-water suppliers.

    USDA's Risk Management Agency, which manages the federal crop insurance program, is funding this research with an eye toward using the tool to offer coverage for a deficit irrigation management practice. The intent is to use Water Optimizer to provide the information required by RMA to offer insurance coverage for deficit irrigation to irrigators in the region who need it.

    Hergert said the project will integrate two years of field research on oil seed crops with previous research on principal crops to update the Water Optimizer and provide educational sessions to train farmers and agricultural consultants in its use.

    The Water Optimizer allows users to input information into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, including soil type and irrigation system options. Irrigation options include center pivot or gravity irrigation systems, well or canal delivery, and systems powered by electricity, diesel, propane or natural gas. After entering this basic information, producers enter their production costs, irrigation costs, crop prices, crop type and available water.

    After these parameters have been set, the program calculates what crops will be most profitable with the given costs and available water.

    Tools such as the Water Optimizer are key at a time when farmers in parts of Nebraska and other states are dealing with limited water supplies stemming from multiyear droughts and from new water allocation restrictions. For example, farmers in the Middle and Lower Republican River basins of southern Nebraska were told in 2005 that they'd be limited to 33 to 39 inches of irrigation water over a three-year period. Another relatively recent restriction was a 14 inch per year allocation placed on farmers in the Pumpkin Creek basin in the Panhandle.

    "When producers face limited water due either to drought or to water allocation regulations, they must make difficult cropping system decisions," IANR researchers said in their grant application.

    "Producers will need access to quality information outlining the potential profits from different crop choices, irrigation management practices and insurance strategies."

    The current version of Water Optimizer is available on the Web from UNL Extension. A DVD/CD set is available for $7 by calling 800-755-7765 or faxing 402-472-9724. The DVD includes a program tutorial and the CD has the Water Optimizer tool. The tool only is compatible for PC users with Microsoft Office XP or Microsoft Office 2003.

    This research is conducted in cooperation with IANR's Agricultural Research Division and UNL Extension.

    SOURCE: University of Nebraska news release.