Adopting new technology in the High Plains is similar to a journey. The journey forward brings a different view and new possibilities. A grower adopts guidance. Then adds boom shutoffs. Then section control. Then the bulb above his head lights up: “I can vary fertilizer and plant populations on these circles. Water, too.”
The Ogallala Aquifer, under five Plains states is the source of water for the big center pivots you spot on your flight west into Denver. Water is the key limiting factor to production in this area, and many are working hard to make it last.
Stephen Hornung grew up near Stratton, Colo., and understands the challenge of getting a good crop with rationed water. He now works for Monsanto, testing hybrids in nearby Bethune, some 200 miles east of Denver. He understands firsthand the importance of his work to the growers in this area.
“Our water source recharges at about a quarter-inch per year,” he explained, “and our growers out here are probably pumping more than 12 inches per year.”
Corn yields north of 250 bushels per acre are not unusual on these irrigated circles. Hornung’s work is aimed at finding new hybrids that yield well with shorter maturity dates.
“If we can shorten the season by 20 days, how much water and energy would we save?” he asked. Testing different hybrids under different water regimens offers an understanding of the variables of maturity date, plant population, water requirements and energy use.
“We look out toward the year 2075 and can see the end of irrigated farming in this area,” he said. “Returning this land to dry-land farming would have a big impact on these towns out here. I feel this kind of research has a rather noble goal.”
Another 200 miles or so northeast of Monsanto’s 40-acre test circle, David Gleason is a precision ag specialist for Simplot Grower Solutions in Hershey, Neb.
“It helps our growers have more faith in the electronic sensors when we ground-truth it with a (soil) probe,” he explained. He pulls progressive cores—the top 12 inches, then the next 12 and finally the bottom 12 inches—to gain a clear picture of moisture in the top three feet of soil. His hands-on look will be compared with the sensor information online back at the office.
“Each water sensor has a wireless connection to the internet, so the data is collected automatically and we can see what’s going on through the website,” he explained, giving the sensor a close look for damage.
Gleason’s monitoring work, along with variable-rate irrigation services, is part of a new Simplot offering called SmartWater, one element of the retail operation’s SmartFarm precision ag effort.
“Moisture drives everything out here,” Gleason explained. “Conserving our water by putting it where it will gain the greatest return, and only using what’s needed is going to make our crop production more sustainable out here.”
Sounds like the promise of precision agriculture, like climbing a new horizon on a journey, brings new terrain to navigate. It’s a promise that’s being fulfilled.