Water for Food

Rows of young green soybeans against the setting sun with beautiful clouds. Soy bean fields in early summer season at sunset.

Daugherty Global Institute at the University of Nebraska

by Jesse Starita, Molly Nance and Dana Ludvik

For generations, Nebraska farmers have made the most of their water resources through irrigation. In recent years, variable rate irrigation (VRI)—which enables farmers to precisely apply water to only the specific areas of a field that need it—has garnered attention as a way to efficiently manage water use and maximize yields. Meanwhile, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) or “drones,” have themselves spread throughout popular culture. Nebraska researchers are bringing together these emerging technologies in a new project that has potential to support global water and food security—a challenge that affects us all.  

The Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute (DWFI) at the University of Nebraska is advancing this research as a way to help farmers around the world increase agricultural production through more efficient and sustainable water use. Founded in 2010, the institute leverages the University of Nebraska’s vast education, research and outreach expertise in agriculture, water management, food science, natural resources and public health. DWFI’s interdisciplinary team of nearly 100 Faculty Fellows spanning the university’s four campuses, along with its network of local, national and global partners, work toward a common goal to improve water use and management in agriculture.

For this project, the institute’s Director of Research Christopher Neale is teaming with Faculty Fellows Wayne Woldt and Derek Heeren, both biological systems engineers at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Since the project’s launch in 2015, the researchers have captured real‐time, remotely sensed visual imagery over crop fields using a UAV outfitted with a triple sensor system. They integrate the data into a simulation model to evaluate soil moisture and evapotranspiration—or how much water is lost to the atmosphere through plants and soils.

“We want to be able to detect moisture stress early; and therefore, make better irrigation and irrigation management decisions,” says Woldt. 

The researchers conduct tests at the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center near Mead and at the West Central Water Resources Field Laboratory near Brule. Additionally, the research team is using the UAV-captured images to generate a vegetation index image for the whole field. This data helps researchers make irrigation “prescriptions” for effective VRI. 

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded a nearly $500,000 grant to the team to fund their study, “Improving Variable Rate Irrigation Efficiency,” based on the initial project’s innovative approach. As the research methods are further refined and the results show the impact of VRI effectiveness to reduce water use and boost yields, DWFI will scale the project beyond Nebraska to other areas of the world where these tools can make a dramatic difference.

“New rules have been released to allow for broader use of unmanned aircraft, so we’re going to see a lot more unmanned aircraft flight operations tied into agriculture,” said Woldt. “This technology holds so much potential.” 

Additionally, DWFI supports two future leaders in this research area, doctoral student Burdette Barker and master’s student Mitchell Maguire, both within the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at Nebraska .

Ultimately, DWFI bridges the worlds of large-scale and smallholder agriculture, concentrating on impact areas that are vital to water and food security both in our state and globally:

Closing water and agricultural productivity gaps, building on the pioneering work of the Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas, as well as the University’s expertise in plant breeding and biotechnology development to improve drought tolerance and crop water productivity.

Enhancing high productivity irrigated agriculture, working, for example, to use remote sensing to monitor and predict yield and water productivity levels in real time and implementing innovative projects in partnership with the private sector and social entrepreneurial groups in sub-Saharan Africa.

Improving groundwater management, drawing on the vast experience of Nebraska’s water governance institutions and farmers, as well as the University’s technical and policy expertise in the subject to inform and guide policymakers, managers, producers and the public.

Supporting public health and ecosystems management, ensuring that efforts to improve water and food security also advance public health and protect ecosystem integrity, leveraging the University’s expertise in natural resources management, water quality analysis and technology, and public health.

Building agricultural resilience to drought by influencing the adoption of drought management tools and policies in selected U.S. regions and international countries.

For videos on this and other DWFI research projects, visit our YouTube channel at youtube.com/waterforfood

Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute brings leadership to the World Water Forum 

The challenges to ensuring we have enough water to feed our growing world population are daunting— poverty, conflict, climate change, soil erosion, lack of technology and training, and increasing demand for meat and dairy products are straining our limited water resources. More than ever, dialogue between different actors is required to develop innovative solutions through public and private actions to promote better water resource quality and sustainability. 

The triennial World Water Forum is the largest international gathering to focus on water. With the overarching theme “Sharing Water,” the 8th World Water Forum proposes to foster this dialogue to promote cooperation and the exchange of knowledge and perspectives. This will be the first World Water Forum to be held in the Southern Hemisphere in Brasilia, Brazil, in March 2018. With 20 percent of freshwater in the world and with one of the largest semi-arid regions in the planet, subject to chronic water crises, Brazil is an ideal location to host this important global conference.


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