A four year research project led by Cranfield University aims to improve energy and water efficiency and crop quality through developing an innovative approach to irrigation practices. Rising energy costs, increasing water regulation and supermarket demands for premium quality produce are forcing growers to address the impacts of irrigation on crop quality whilst simultaneously reducing energy and water consumption. Nearly three-quarters of all field vegetable crops, the most important crop in the UK after potatoes in terms of crop value, are irrigated using overhead methods which are inefficient in energy and water use, therefore affecting crop quality.
40,000 ha of outdoor vegetable crops are irrigated in a dry year. The total annual running costs are estimated to be £16.5 million, of which the energy (pumping) costs account for over three quarters of all in-field costs. New technologies to improve the targeting of water application and improved crop response crop quality could reduce water and energy annual running costs by up to 20%, or almost £3.5million.
The ‘precision irrigation’ approaches being developed at Cranfield combine knowledge of soil, crop and equipment management practices to improve irrigated production, water application and water use efficiency, - more ‘crop per drop’ - and reduce the ‘non-beneficial’ losses such as soil erosion, and reduce energy costs, thereby improving post harvest quality of crops and reducing crop wastage in the supply chain. Dr Jerry Knox, Project Leader, said “Making maximum use of soil moisture and rainfall, knowing precisely where and when irrigation has to be applied, and then applying it accurately and uniformly, are the fundamental steps in the ‘pathway to water efficiency’”.
The project combines the expertise of 10 industry partners and three academic institutions – Cranfield, Lancaster and Harper Adams University College.