US Federal and state researchers are studying irrigation scheduling and a potential for water savings in potato plants at the Conservation and Production Research Laboratory at Bushland.
AberdeenNews.com reports that the three-year project, supported by the Texas Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant program, is a collaboration between Susan O’Shaughnessy, Ph.D., U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service, ARS, agricultural engineer-irrigation automation, and Charlie Rush, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Research plant pathologist.
The project has two purposes: O’Shaughnessy is analyzing the ability of sensors attached to an irrigation system to determine when the crop needs to be irrigated using the plant’s temperature as a guide. The variable rate wireless irrigation scheduling system would program water application in relation to the temperature of the plant.
Rush, on the other hand, studies whether that plant’s temperature is an indication of disease or illness, much like a fever in a human.
O’Shaughnessy’s research will help potato growers be more efficient with their water inputs. She is managing chipping potatoes with canopy temperature measurements and soil water sensors, to determine how to apply the right amount of water at the right time.
“Potatoes are very sensitive to both over irrigation and drought conditions. We want to optimize the amount of water we put onto the potatoes, preventing over irrigation as well as under irrigation,” she said.
Their plan is to analyze diseased plots and look at UAV images to indicate when the plant is diseased and then work with canopy temperature measurements and soil water sensors, to improve their water savings. Rush said that watering a sick plant could be a wasteful.
“The idea that a plant only gets hot when it is thirsty is incorrect from my point of view. I’m a plant doctor, so I’m also interested in the plant’s temperature. A plant getting hot can also indicate a diseased root system or some other physiological issue that’s impacting the health of the plant. Just like with people, a fever indicates something else in the body is wrong, it’s not functioning right,” he said.
Rush’s research intends to identify the cause of a plant’s high temperature, and limit water usage on diseased plants.
“We think this technology will be useful in the future, but we will need to have control measures in the field.”
These measures will target color, according to the specialists, who went on to say that plants don’t usually change color when they need water, but they do turn yellow if they suffer from disease.
“So, if you use the thermal sensors in addition to sensors that can detect the color of the plants and can monitor the beginning of that shift from a healthy dark green to a sick chlorotic yellow, then you can put that together with the temperature. If you have a plant that is dark green and turning hot, it needs water. The plant that is hot and turning yellow would be sick and doesn’t need more water.”
A variable-rate irrigation system designed to water, based on heat signatures, would also need to be able to compensate for disease, insect damage or anything else in the field that causes the plant to change colors.