Irrigation method saves 50 percent of water needed for potato growth

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences researchers have found an irrigation method that uses 50 percent less water than traditional systems to grow potatoes – an important finding for the $131 million-a-year Florida crop.

The system is called “hybrid center pivot irrigation.” With this method, about two-thirds of the water used to help grow potatoes is sprayed from above ground, similar to natural rainfall, and about one-third comes from under the ground – a traditional method known as “seepage irrigation.”

UF/IFAS Assistant Professor Guodong “David” Liu led a group of UF/IFAS researchers in testing the impact of hybrid center pivot irrigation on soil moisture and temperature at a Manatee County, Florida potato farm.

The method saved about 55 percent of water in a three-year trial at the farm. Additionally, researchers found no loss in crop yield using less water. Liu said he now is convincing growers to use center pivot irrigation with fertigation, in which all the water comes from above-ground sprinklers. Scientists say they may save one third more water.

“By using center pivot irrigation, we saved approximately 1 billion gallons of irrigation on the private farm during the last three growing seasons,” he said.

Growers typically use seepage irrigation because the system doesn’t need extra equipment, said Liu, a faculty member in the UF/IFAS Department of Horticultural Sciences. But seepage uses too much water, he said. Center pivot irrigation equipment costs about $1,000 per acre, but it can be used for many years.

Potato growers in the Pacific Northwest use center pivot irrigation, Liu said. In addition to the Manatee County farm, some potato and snap bean growers in Live Oak, Florida, use center pivot irrigation.

Invented by a Colorado farmer in 1940, center pivot irrigation uses equipment that rotates around a pivot, thus watering the crop with sprinklers. In Florida, 90 percent of irrigation water comes from the Floridan aquifer, Liu said. He sees the center pivot farming irrigation system as a step toward saving a good deal of water.

Florida farmers produce 351,000 tons of potatoes per year, according to UF/IFAS reports. Commercial potato producers in Southwest Florida – home to the Manatee County where Liu’s team conducted the study – use an average of 543,086 gallons per acre, Liu said. Center pivot irrigation uses only 230,812 per acre.

The new UF/IFAS study is published in the journal Agricultural Water Management.

Cutline: UF/IFAS researchers have found an irrigation method that uses 50 percent less water than traditional systems to grow potatoes – an important finding for the $131 million-a-year Florida crop. UF/IFAS Assistant Professor Guodong “David” Liu led the study on a hybrid center pivot irrigation.

Credit: UF/IFAS file.

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