A voluntary sustainable irrigation management project in central Minnesota that has helped participating farmers more efficiently apply water to their crops will one day be offered as a statewide program.
The project, known by its online scheduling tool name, Irrigation Management Assistant (IMA), has helped growers since 2016 with applying the right amount of water at the right time, depending on the crop.
Efforts continue to fine-tune the Irrigaton Management Assistant online tool that determines when to irrigate a field. Drone footage from the Benton Soil and Water Conseravtion District shows how SWCD and Natural Resources Conseravtion Service staff use a “catch-can” test — cups set out to collect at least 0.6 inches of irrigation water when the pivot is run over it. Jessica Hoheisel, Benton SWCD district technician, says the irrigation system is usually operated at night to reduce water loss by wind and evaporation from the sun. In the morning, staff collect and measure the water in each cup. Data are entered in a spreadsheet and graphed to show what the uniformity percentage is on the irrigation application rate. If there are dips or spikes in the amount applied, there may be a broken nozzle or something on the pivot that needs updating or fixing.
Gerry Maciej, Benton Soil and Water Conservation District manager, based in Foley, Minn., helped developed the original online tool in response to concerns about increasing groundwater use for crop irrigation and its impact on a local trout stream, Little Rock Creek. Goals at the time were to increase the adoption of University of Minnesota irrigation management methods, which were difficult to apply in a timely manner due to limited technology; reduce long-term irrigation needs by improving soil health; and avoid additional water permitting regulation by the Department of Natural Resources.
With funding secured from the state’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF), irrigation scheduling software was developed to analyze field and environmental data in determining when to turn on the sprinklers. Data for the tool come from numerous sources. Soil-type information comes from Natural Resource Conservation Service soil surveys. Farmers input their crop information and when it was planted.
“The software uses GIS data to digitize fields, grabs rainfall estimates from radar, graphs solar data and wind speed,” Maciej adds. “It’s all scaled to make it easy to follow University of Minnesota recommendations.”
Since 2016, more than 100 users have adopted the IMA tool in the Little Rock Creek Groundwater area, and in Hubbard, Becker, Wadena, Otter Tail and Todd counties. In 2022, Dakota County SWCD also supported the expansion of the tool to that county. Growers use IMA to schedule irrigation on five crops — corn, soybeans, alfalfa, potatoes and edible beans — covering roughly 6,500 acres.
Research has shown that irrigation scheduling can decrease water use by 30% while improving yields 5%, Maciej adds. Energy use also goes down by about 35%.
Expanded funding, coverage
Additional ENRTF funding granted last summer is helping U-MN and its consulting partners to further fine-tune the tool and update it to support more SWCDs and irrigators across Minnesota while continuing to preserve irrigator privacy.
Bryan Runck, University of Minnesota senior research scientist and lead of U-MN’s GEMS (genetics, environment, management and socioeconomic data sets) Informatics Center, says the updates will make the tool more accurate and the models more predictive. The revised tool is expected to go live in 2023.
Currently, data reside in databases with limited access by team members at an agriculture and engineering consulting firm, RESPEC Co. Data will continue to stay on a private server with only RESPEC and the farmer having access to field data. As new soils, weather data and crop models managed by U-MN are added, RESPEC (named as an abbreviation for its function, research specialties) will have access to the updates and apply them to grower data. Throughout the process, data is encrypted and no identifiable information about the irrigator is shared.
In addition to this technical security, Runck says that a 2018 Minnesota state statute makes all individually identifiable farm data private, even if it is on university servers.
“Though no grower data is stored by the university, this should provide peace of mind that the IMA tool has all the privacy protections in place to keep irrigator’s data secure,” he says.
Maciej credits Runck, U-MN Extension irrigation specialist Vasudha Sharma and colleagues for taking the tool to the next level with technology.
“They have a new user group called the IMA Champions — SWCD technicians and farmers — who will try out new stuff before it’s rolled out to all users,” he says.
To learn more about the IMA tool, visit ima.respec.com.