Researchers at the University of Warwick's plant research arm Warwick HRI are examining ways to respond to the fact that the UK is becoming an increasing water scarce country - particularly in the south and east. They are looking at the basic engineering behind water and fertilizer saving irrigation technique use in Southern Europe called fertigation and found not only could they use it to address UK problems they could cleverly automate the technique to such a degree that they could build a system that could even follow advance weather reports and make its own decisions on whether your plants needed watering based on commercial 5 day weather reports.
In Southern Europe growers have long conserved water and fertilizer supplies by a technique called fertigation - in its most basic form this consists of little more than hoses delivering water and fertilizer to plants via a series of holes in the pipe. The whole process was governed by little more than a tap and a farm hand on a moped regularly checking the pipes. The Warwick technique called "Dynamic Fertigation" uses an array of moisture sensors in the soil which send data to a control system that hooked up to a laptop by mobile phone technology. The control system switches on the water when the soil dries below a site specific threshold. Using models of crop growth the system can predict when the crop needs nutrients and these are applied with the water. So far so good, but what if it rains? This system can take in and act on data from 5 day advance weather reports preventing the application of precious fertilizer getting washed away by a heavy rain fall into rivers and water courses. This new high tech method of fertigation will obviously be of considerable interest not just in the UK but in regions of the world already using more primitive fertigation methods.
Warwick HRI researchers are running six field experiments in the UK at Wellesbourne in Warwickshire with supporting field experiments in Lincolnshire, UK and Cartagena in Spain. Early results show 33 % saving in fertilizer for lettuce and 50% for runner beans. Targeting water and fertilizer applications to when and where they are needed saves water and alos prevents contamination of water ways.
The research will be presented to growers at a special "Water Day" on Thursday 20th July 2006 at Warwick HRI's Wellesbourne site. The Water Day will present a range of latest research on water saving techniques for growers.
Peter Dunn | alfa
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