Farming techniques for the next century are being pioneered at King Saud University by a ground breaking precision farming project that hopes to reduce the amount of fertilizer, pesticide, water that farmers need use, all while improving crop yields
The KSU precision farming project, organised by the Precision Agriculture Research Chair (PARC), uses satellite imagery, GPS mapping and advanced data gathering to allow farmers to tailor inputs to the exact field where they are working.
A trial of the technology is under way on two farms in the Hardh and Kharj areas, with both seeing the precision application of fertiliser via irrigation water, a process known as fertigation, as well as the application of water, to crops being tested.
The project is being undertaken in partnership with farmers themselves, to make use of their expertise in the planning phase of the research program.
PARC Director Khalid A. Al-Gaadi believes an ongoing dialogue with the farmers is essential for implementing the project in a successful manner that will benefit both them and the researchers.
Al-Gaadi said working alongside the farmers also sharply reduces the time needed for the technology transfer from university to practical application, by using what is known as the 'show and convince' principle.
“The research plan is carefully discussed, including the design of the experiments and various activities, with the farmers, before the field work begins,” he said.
“This is bearing in mind that all the agricultural processes are carried out by the farmer to vary the average of inputs into the crops under testing, such as wheat and clover.”
A Variable Rate Irrigation(VRI) system, specially designed the USA, has been installed in two irrigation channels on the farms to assess the system’s ability to vary the ratio of irrigation water used to match the needs of sectors within the field.
Descriptive maps of the crops are complied based on the evapotranspiration of crops - how much water is lost through evaporation and plant respiration - as well as the electrical conductivity of the soil, the slope or gradient of the field, and the growth rate, vegetation cover, and temperature, as assessed by satellite.
These descriptive maps are loaded into the VRI system and are used to adjust the amount of water applied during every irrigation cycle to the different locations in the field.
Based on these maps the fields are split into two Management Zones (MZ) to locate areas of probable high and low production, and are used to assess the response of crops to the precise application of fertiliser via an irrigation system, a process known as fertigation.
Al-Gaadi believes the preliminary results for fertiliser and water use show much promise, with up to 20 percent of water used in a clover clover crop or 30 percent of water for a wheat crop able to be saved without any effect on crop quantity.
Based on the amount of clover planted in 2011, it's a possible saving of more than 775 million cubic meters of water per year for clover crops alone.
For wheat, the numbers are just as impressive, with almost 440 million cubic meters of water able to be saved per season.
Economic savings are also possible by using fertigation, as less diesel fuel is needed to operate primary irrigation machinery.
Currently a standard central irrigation machine consumes fuel at the rate of 90 litres per hour or 22.5 Riyals an hour based on a diesel price of 25 halala per litre.
By better targeting the application of water to crops, and using fertigation, in clover 456 Riyals per hectare can be saved during 11 months while for wheat 166 Riyals per hectare can be saved during the growing season.
As the growing season for clover extends for four to five months, nationally 56.5 million SAR could be saved, while for wheat the saving is more than 32 million SAR, based on 2011 crop sizes.
Generating these types of savings would help farming businesses become more sustainable while increasing their profitability and preserving the environment.
The next ambitious project planned by PARC aims at using salty water to grow tomatoes in green houses hydroponically and is expected to begin soon.