Improving Water Use Efficiency in Conventional and Organic Almonds through Data Driven Irrigation

Final report for FW16-036

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2016: $19,878.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2018
Grant Recipient: P R Farms, Inc.
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Pat Ricchiuti
P R Farms, Inc.
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Project Information

Abstract:

The purpose of this two-year project is to compare advanced irrigation practices on two Fresno County almond orchards under organic and conventional management practices. In particular, the blocks included self-pollinating trees (e.g., Independence) and cross-pollinating trees (e.g., Nonpareil). The orchards are managed by PR Farms. We were able to complete this study in 2 years by virtue of having historical water and energy data in 2015 from PowWow’s Pump Monitor. Using 2015 as a base year and tracking yield data, PR Farms was able to implement advanced irrigation practices in 2016 and 2017, and assess the impact on its operation across organic and conventional fields. PR Farms implemented two irrigation schedules: (1) ET-based irrigation with soil moisture monitoring (ET-SMM); (2) partial ET irrigation using Regulated Deficit Irrigation at key times of the year (partial ET). Both irrigation schedules were managed under the same management platform (PowWow’s Irrigation Advisor), which facilitated the deployment for the ranch crew comparison thanks to text messages and weekly emails. Yield data and water use efficiency was tracked in 2016 and 2017 against 2015.

Project Objectives:

The project took place in two almond orchards managed by PR Farms: Ranch 12 Block 7 and R12 Block 8. The orchards are located in Fresno County near Raisin City. They include 84 acres of conventionally grown trees planted in 2008 (2/3 Nonpareil, 1/6 Wood Colony, and 1/6 Avalon), 17 acres of conventionally grown trees planted in 2009 (2/3 Nonpareil, 1/6 Wood Colony, and 1/6 Avalon), 62 acres of conventionally grown trees planted in 2011 (2/3 Nonpareil, 1/6 Wood Colony, and 1/6 Avalon), and 78 acres of organically grown trees planted in 2011 (Independence). Our project will demonstrate the effectiveness of ET and partial ET irrigation scheduling at different stages of growth. The project included three phases: (1) Benchmarking of the irrigation infrastructure including the energy efficiency of the pumps, and the uniformity of the field; (2) Optimization of the irrigation schedule based on soil conditions, data from spatial CIMIs, crop models from ANR, and aerial images; (3) tracking the evolution of yield, water use efficiency, and energy efficiency for the fields under the program. Our goal is to demonstrate and quantify the economic value (yield per amount of water) and environmental impact (energy and water savings resulting in reduction of greenhouse gas emissions) of advanced irrigation strategies as a means to increase the sustainability of almond farming operations that rely heavily on access to clean water. We also expect to add unique insights on organic vs. conventional conditions and self-pollinating vs. cross-pollinating trees. The project will include education and outreach. Field days are planned at both fields during years one and two. 

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Kurt Quade (Educator and Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

For the 2016 season, yields were up on the conventional with areas of improvement for the organic. The most limiting factor to production was the lack of proper nutrition.  For the 2017 season we chose to put extra focus on the fertility plan for the organic blocks. We chose to work with Quade Agricultural Consulting Services to develop a successful fertility plan to push the trees to their full potential. 

Kurt Quade is one of the most experienced agricultural consultants in California. Kurt’s office is in Lemoore and he works primarily in water management and agronomic consulting with growers on a wide variety of crops. He also covers a diversity of consulting specifically in organic agriculture. Examples of his services range from advising growers about rodent control with owls, to designing and conducting field trials with organic products for organic manufacturers and distributors. 

On Wednesday, August 23, 2017, Kurt Quade met with our irrigation manager, Brenden Tockey, and ranch manager Marty Albrecht. They discussed various aspects of almond harvest practices and general agronomic ideas as they related to almonds.The trees in 2017 made a considerable improvement in growth. Comparing imagery on blocks 7 and 8, from 2015 to 2017 was deceptive. The trees in 2015 were flood irrigated. In 2016, the trees were transitioning from flood irrigation to micro-sprinkler irrigation.

Although the tree growth for blocks 7 and 8 in 2017 was better than in 2016, the tree growth still has room for improvement.  Looking at the vegetative growth of the trees, the new tip growth was only about 6 inches long. Kurt noted that the new growth should be more like 18 inches long. The new growth revealed our future 2018 yield potential. We applied four tons of compost per acre at the very beginning of 2017. After further analysis of the soil and leaf tissue, Kurt recommended an additional four tons to be applied. We followed Kurt’s recommendation. A total of eight tons per acre of compost was applied for 2017. Depending upon analysis, we plan to follow Kurt’s recommendation of ten tons per acre for 2018. 

 

Research results and discussion:

The combination of irrigation and fertility improvement resulted in a decent yield for the 2017 season. For Block 7 we were up 76% for conventional and up 5% for organic. For Block 8 we were down 23% in the conventional and up 2% for organic. The decrease in the conventional yield for block 8 may be due to the transitioning process and troubleshooting during the summer months.Using Powwow’s Irrigation Advisor and soil sensors, we had a 9% average yield increase for the blocks using the tools. We have room to grow and should try and reach 20% next year. For fertility, we would like to take the same approach provided by Kurt Quade for all organic fields. The knowledge and skills gained from this project can be applied to all of our almond orchards. 

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 On-farm demonstrations
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

6 Farmers
3 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

P-R Farms conducted a field outreach training with Powwow Energy on June 7th 2017 in Raisin City.  In terms of agenda, we had three quick talks to cover what we learned through our WSARE project at Ranch 12. We covered three key topics (irrigation, fertility, and use of remote sensing). The topic discussions ran about 10 minutes each. We wanted to keep the discussions short to leave time for group discussions. We finished by having each ranch team break into separate groups to work on an exercise. These exercises highlighted areas of improvement and review.

Our team was very engaged and the collaboration between the foremen was beneficial. The CEO of Powwow Energy, Olivier Jerphagnon, first spoke about the use of NDVI imagery and pump data. He highlighted how both can be used to improve the uniformity of the field and yield. A poster board was used to go over a growth curve that showed the importance of irrigating enough early in the season and to avoid over-irrigating late in the season. For the second talk, Agronomist Kurt Quade, spoke about fertility in the organic fields and some of the issues we faced last year. He provided an understanding on how to approach fertility for organic versus conventional fields. Kurt also covered the importance of getting precise yield data over the summer. This data would later be used to validate improvements. Laura Crawford gave the final talk. She is an agronomist and a sales engineer with Powwow Energy. She demonstrated how to the weekly irrigation tool provided by the Powwow interface. Foremen were given a handout to simplify the tool and its’ properties. Laura showed the team where the data comes from and how the irrigation recommendations are calculated. This gave our team a strong understanding on how weekly pump hours are put together. Every foreman took home the handouts given by each speaker.

Once the talks concluded, each ranch team broke out to work on one exercise. These exercises were used to confirm that the team understood the topics covered during the outreach. Afterwards, each group covered what they had learned during the training. The groups also expressed areas of concern and their goals for the 2017 season. The WSARE project gave us the opportunity to apply what we had learned to all of our ranch locations abroad. We look forward to having an additional outreach event in the near future as the 2018 harvest approaches.Please click the link below for photos of the outreach field day.

Pictures-During-Outreach-Training

 

 

 

 

Learning Outcomes

6 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • Irrigation

  • Fertility

  • Soil Sensor Monitoring

  • NDVI Imagery

Project Outcomes

6 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
6 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)
Project outcomes:

P-R farms used the WSARE grant to improve the sustainability of two almond blocks in Raisin City. Each block containing half conventional varieties and half organic. The trees in 2017 made a considerable improvement in growth and yield overall. The combination of irrigation and fertility upgrades made the difference. The grant allowance provided us with the opportunity to enhance our irrigation system and our knowledge. After putting the upgrades in place, we were able to optimize our irrigation hours to meet the requirements of the crop. We were able to keep our trees from being stressed while avoiding excessive irrigation. We were able to cut back our energy and water usage resulting in savings across the board.

The tools provided by the grant made all the difference when used and understood. Trainings on how to operate and maintain these tools were essential for a successful irrigation program. Once we converted to micro-sprinklers, we had to understand the capabilities and thresholds of the upgraded system. Powwow’s Irrigation Advisor identified the capacities and soil structure of both blocks involved in the project. The ranch manager was able to start irrigating earlier through the use of the Hortau soil sensors linked to the system. This allowed us to keep moisture throughout the soil profile before the warmest weeks of the year.  Our manager was also able to irrigate better during the season through the use of a weekly (ET schedule). Being able to forecast the water requirements for our involved crops gave us the ability to plan ahead. The hourly run times provided by Powwow’s recommendations would adjust automatically through forecasting. The trees avoided the harsh heat stress of the summer months and kept their profitability. Another advantage we saw took place during the dormant season. The irrigation advisor would show a recommended irrigation set on a warmer than usual week. Before the advisor, we would have assumed irrigating was unnecessary.

Advances in irrigation management technology continue to grow every year. The data provided to growers from these tools continues to increase as well. Our involvement with Powwow helped us to see the importance of using our data.  They were able to use our data to tell a story. We were able to diagnose a number of crop symptoms and management issues. We also learned the importance of sharing our findings with the farm manager. The manager addressed the areas of improvement to the work team and the problems would be resolved. The monthly NDVI Imagery showed us our true crop uniformity and areas to be repaired. The imagery gave us a way to show our foreman that the extra effort he puts toward the crop has a big impact. 

 

 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.