Agricultural economists explore tools, models to maximize irrigation efficiency

Randy LaBauve, Gould, Frances I., Blanchard, Tobie M.  |  9/12/2018 8:15:10 PM

Water may not be as scarce in Louisiana as it is out west, but when it comes to irrigation, farmers in our state face challenges with changing governmental regulations, resource availability, environmental sustainability and profitability. A number of LSU AgCenter research projects are addressing these issues.

Over the last two years, AgCenter agricultural economist Naveen Adusumilli, with the help of research associates and field agents, has been analyzing changes in irrigation policy. A portion of the project includes sharing developmental updates with farmers throughout the state, at research station field days and various meetings, such as pesticide certification trainings.

“We wanted to look into these issues — what we call irrigation policy or water policy reforms—and then identify how that would have an impact on our grain and soybean farmers and their production as a whole,” said Adusumilli.

When the Louisiana Legislature passed a 2016 bill to increase taxes on equipment used for irrigation, like poly pipe and off-road diesel, Adusumilli tried to estimate what was the economic burden on farmers.

Armed with those research findings, the Legislature included waivers for farmers. The AgCenter held workshops to teach farmers about the waiver process and about irrigation tools that could help them improve their net returns.

As a result of that work with farmers and extension agents, AgCenter researchers have also developed an app for corn, cotton, soybeans and sorghum.

“This gives farmers the option to select certain efficiency practices,” said Adusumilli. “We put in all the production costs, all the economic incentives and the final number the farmer sees is the net return.”

Adusumilli said he received positive feedback from farmers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Resources Conservation Service is a major contributor to cost-share programs for farmers, including certain irrigation efficiency practices, according to Adusumilli.

Some related AgCenter work also focuses on soil management and cover crops. After collecting information from NRCS, Adusumilli and his team have been working

with farmers to collect cover crop production costs and develop an app similar to the irrigation one.

AgCenter agricultural economist Krishna Paudel is attempting to identify the most efficient levels of irrigation for soybeans and other row crops.

Mississippi laws already require farmers in the Mississippi River Valley Alluvial Aquifer (MRVA) to measure and — in some cases — limit their use of water because of aquifer decline. Across the river, Louisiana has no such restrictions.

“If you extract more and more water, the water level could, at some point, become overdrawn,” said Paudel. “So the purpose of this research is really looking at when we need to irrigate, how much we need to irrigate and how’s that going to impact crop yield.”

There are more than 13,000 irrigation wells in Louisiana, according to Paudel. In addition to the potential for water being unnecessarily overdrawn, there are concerns of regulations that don’t take into account water levels necessary to grow a profitable crop.

“What if the day comes where government agencies see the aquifer water level has really gone down, and they come up with a groundwater extraction limit per acre of irrigated crop grown?” asked Paudel. “We have no information about how much water to apply for a profitable yield, and that’s what we’re trying to find out.”

The irrigation measurement project, centered primarily in the North Louisiana MRVA, attempts to gather information from soybean producers over the next two or three years and will then move to research other crops. When the most efficient levels are identified, this will give farmers an important model to help them optimize their profit level, according to Paudel.

“This is a serious problem because we need a balance for a long-term sustainable farming system while meeting environmental needs,” he said. “We want to continue extracting groundwater in the long run and sustain Louisiana agriculture.”

Randy LaBauve

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