USU researchers hope irrigation study in Cedar City will help farmers water more efficiently

CEDAR CITY — A new irrigation study currently underway in Iron County is designed to determine how much water is needed to optimally grow a variety of crops. In addition to an event held at the beginning of September with study facilitators, local farmers and other stakeholders, Gov. Spencer Cox also toured the site of the project this month.

USU graduate student Tina Sullivan speaks to field day attendees about an irrigation optimization research project at the SUU Farm, Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 1, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

The research project is being conducted by Utah State University graduate students and faculty at the Southern Utah University Farm in Cedar City with the assistance and support of various partners.

During two recent educational tours held earlier this month at the SUU Farm, USU agriculture professor Matt Yost and others talked about the project in greater detail.

Yost noted that the Cedar City site, which is still in its first growing season, is patterned after two nearly identical setups that were established in other areas of the state over the past couple of years, one in Logan and one in Vernal.

Each farm’s project area is laid out in a grid, with a linear watering system traversing rectangular plots of alfalfa and corn, Yost explained. 

At USU Extension’s “crop field day” event held Sept. 1 at the site, two of Yost’s graduate students at USU, Dakota Boren and Tina Sullivan, took turns explaining various types of water delivery systems and their efficacy to a group of more than 50 local farmers and others involved in the agriculture industry.

Yost said he and the other researchers are essentially studying whether it’s possible to get normal crop yields with reduced water application.

Previous to taking a walking tour of the fields, Yost listed the following possibilities for optimizing water use:

  • Utilizing the best irrigation system possible.
  • Using genetics, including drought-tolerant genetics in some cases.
  • Reducing tillage to keep more moisture in the soil.
  • Covering crops and other management practices.

“What combinations are best?” Yost asked in reference to the possibilities. “Which are most economical or most efficient at utilizing water?”

Sprinklers water an alfalfa field during a field day event highlighting an irrigation optimization research project at the SUU Farm, Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 1, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

In addition to different water delivery systems, Yost said various other aspects are also being studied, including soil wetting agents and the feasibility of alternative feed crops such as sorghum sudangrass and teff grass.

Although the research is still in progress, Yost said they’ve already made some preliminary findings. 

“What we know so far is that these advanced sprinkler technologies are good,” he said, referring to bubbler or dripline attachments that have been replacing traditional pivot systems in Iron County. “They help save water in most cases. As for crop genetics, we really haven’t seen any benefits from having drought-tolerant (crops). In the reduced tillage, we’re starting to see some negative impacts, which can happen.”

One interesting finding, Yost said, is that there does not appear to be any appreciable difference in crops that had their water reduced by half but spread out at targeted stages of growth versus a simple flat water reduction of 50%.

USU graduate student Dakota Boren speaks to field day attendees about an irrigation optimization research project at the SUU Farm, Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 1, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Although Yost called that finding “disappointing,” he said it also means “if we need to cut back, it’s going to probably be easier.”

“We can just come back and do that all season versus trying to target limited water.”

Yost said the monsoonal rains that hit the area starting in late July have affected the study.

“We had a really good control until about July 26,” he said, adding jokingly, “If you ever want to do irrigation research, just plan on rain.”

Because Yost and the USU grad students are based in Logan, much of the task of physically tending the pivots and checking the crops has fallen on SUU farm manager Morgan Christensen and assistant Andy Heaton.

“We’re glad to be involved in this and be using the farm to do research on, and hopefully we can do things that help the local producers,” Christensen said during the field day event.

Randall Violett, the agriculture agent for Iron County’s USU Extension office, said the Sept. 1 event was “kind of the first time we’ve been able to showcase all the research that’s been going on here.”

He added that the research project is being funded primarily through U.S. Department of Agriculture grants.

Gov. Spencer Cox talks about an irrigation optimization research project at the SUU Farm, Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 7, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

The project has also attracted the attention of top state leaders, including Gov. Spencer Cox, who visited the project site in Cedar City the following week, along with several members of his cabinet.

During a brief tour of the project’s alfalfa field on Sept. 7, Cox commented on how the more efficient sprinkler heads can make a difference.

“It saves water, saves from overspray and saves from evaporation,” he said. “And the crops seem to do better, and that’s going to be necessary for all of us as we move forward.” 

Cox, who has a family farm in Fairview, joked about the sprinkler heads, saying that his kids were excited “because they don’t have to move these.”

“So I’ve got to find something else to keep them working.”

Cox also pledged continued state support for farmers wanting to upgrade to more efficient watering systems.

“The good news is that, across the state of Utah, we’re already doing this,” he said, referring to the state’s existing incentive program, which he said has been gaining in popularity.

“Last year was our most successful year ever, but it’s still just a drop in the bucket,” he said. “We need much more of that.”

Cox said it’s not easy to ask farmers to put money toward new sprinklers, especially in light of the prevalent drought over the past couple years.

“We’ve had two tough years. And now to say, ‘Hey, you have to invest a whole bunch of money so you can save water long-term that will help the entire state.”

The governor said it’s a tough proposition, “but they’re willing to do it.”

“We just need to make sure that we have the financial assistance to help them make that possible.”

Following the SUU farm visit, Cox also made a brief stop at the Quichapa dry lake bed west of Cedar City, where local officials talked about the various aquifer recharge efforts being made there and in other areas of Iron County.

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