Automatic Weather Station installed in Pampanga to boost sugarcane irrigation, raise yield

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An automatic weather station (AWS)  has been installed at the Luzon Agricultural Research and Extension Center (LAREC) in Floridablanca, Pampanga as part of boosting irrigation and raising sugarcane yield to 75 metric tons (MT) per hectare.

The Water Resources Management Center (WRMC) of the Central Luzon State University (CLSU) has developed an Optimum Irrigation Scheduling System for sugarcane as a model adopted from Australia which has among the world’s highest sugarcane yield.

In a seminar series hosted by the Southeast Asian Regional Center Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), WRMC Head Armando N. Espino Jr., said irrigation will be a major key to raising sugar productivity in the Philippines.

“Water is a major limiting factor for productivity (especially) in changing climatic conditions and weather patterns.  The industry expansion depends upon efficient water use,” said Espino in the SEARCA seminar.

The sugarcane industry targets to raise yield by 2024 to 75 MT per hectare, up by 27% from the present 59 MT.

Improving irrigation will be a major factor to achieve this in order to raise sugar sector’s present value of P87 billion.

WRMC’s project is under the Smart Water Management Strategies for Sugarcane (SWMS) financed by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD).

The installation of the AWS is with the vision to adapt a technology inspired by Australia’s National Center for Engineering in Agriculture (NCEA).

Australia itself has an average cane yield of 91 MT of cane per hectare (with yield reaching to 120 MT per hectare).  Its sugar export hit $1.8 billion in 2015-2016, making Australia world’s third largest sugar exporter.

Australian farmers use internet-enabled sensing technologies and can turn on or off irrigation system from their homes as they monitor farm data and give remote instruction on irrigation.

“Technology is already in the hands of farmers in Australia.  They have a soil-crop-weather simulation model where farmers can expect this amount of growth response in plant when you give this amount of irrigation,”said Espino.

The irrigation scheduling system maximizes use of water—delivers water to plants only when it is needed—when soil moisture is already low.

Sub-surface driplines

In the Floridablanca pilot farm, the WRMC project  installed drip lines 30 CM (centimetre) below the ground. It also installed soil moisture sensor around 50 CM below the ground – under the seedpiece.

This way, the sugarcane farms barely had weeds because water is underneath the ground.

The concept of automated irrigation involves the sensor’s ability to detect low soil moisture underground.  When needed, water may be delivered to the root system via the driplines when a certain low soil moisture level (as programmed) is hit.

As Australian farms already use solar powered pumping system for irrigation, Espino said the Department of Agriculture may soon have an extensive program to introduce solar-powered irrigation systems too.

“As researchers we should open our minds, so we can find solutions on how to improve farm operation in order to efficiently use resources, and for farmers to have higher income and increase yield  for food security,” he said.

Furrow irrigation

WRMC found out that smart irrigation technologies will easily raise sugarcane yield by 30%.    

Non-irrigated lands give a yield of just 65 MT per hectare compared to 100 MT for irrigated lands. Moreover, its field experimentation showed that furrow irrigation gives the best yield and irrigation efficiency compared to drip irrigation.

Furrow irrigated sugarcane land yielded the highest range of 189,580 to 199,250 kilos per hectare. Harvest from drip irrigation only ranged at 145,460 to 173,080 per hectare. However, drip irrigation saved 68% of water compared to furrow irrigation.

Industry roadmap

The sugar sector is implementing irrigation programs  in light of a development plan called “Strategically Diversified Sugarcane Industry by 2024” under the Sugar Industry Development Act (SIDA) of 2015.

 

This industry roadmap is a grand vision to develop sugarcane as input to the following:

1. Highly efficient sugar mills

2. 20 bioethanol distillers supplying 20% of the country’s bioethanol requirement

3. Sugar mills that generate 500 megawatts or MW of electricity

4. Specialty Sugar, biowater, and bioplastics

WRMC’s project revealed that there is a significant 45-60% increase in sugarcane yield in irrigated sugarcane farms compared to non-irrigated ones.

This is based on a baseline study conducted by WRMC  involving 120 respondent-sugarcane farmers from Pampanga , Tarlac, Batangas and Negros Occidental.

Australian industry

The Australian sugarcane industry is a world leader as a result of the research and development  (R&D) aid of Sugar Research Australia (SRA) that enhanced farmer-entrepreneurs’ competitiveness.

It provides funding for R&D and facilitates dissemination of technology to farmers. Australia’s SRA promotes “targeted application of fertilizer, irrigation, agrochemicals, soil ameliorants or crop ripeners, and selective harvesting,” said Espino.

SRA provides farmer-entrepreneurs in Australia information including “remotely sensed imagery, digital elevation model, high resolution soil mapping, gamma radiometry, soil and tissue testing and crop assessment.

Remote sensors are used in Australia for “estimating crop yields, detecting diseases, identifying pest and weed coverage, evaluating uniformity of irrigation, observing changes in plant growth, assessing the impact of severe weather, and determining local and extent of crop stress.”

“Internet-enabled sensing and control is integrated into the irrigation system,” said Espino. “There is real-time optimisation of surface irrigation using ‘auto furrow.’”

Remote sensors also have uses in “producing farm level and block level yield maps and screening research and breeding trials.”

Australia’s weed sensing technology enables sensors to distinguish weeds from crops, thereby automating application of herbicide and saving 80% herbicide use.

Irrigation methods

Filipino sugarcane farmers use various irrigation methods, WRMC’s baseline study showed. 

These are irrigation by gravity through polyethylene pipes; hand-held hose irrigation which is labor-intensive; and furrow irrigation which has low equipment costs and is simple to operate but takes 5 days to irrigate one hectare.

Filipino farmers also use hand-move sprinkler which takes shorter time – three hours to irrigate one hectare but also needs more farm hand (labor).

A more sophisticated irrigation system is the travelling boom sprinkler which irrigates even faster at 3.5 hectares per day.  But the equipment’s cost is high at P750,000 per unit.

Drip irrigation which efficiently distributes water direct to each plant through pipes that have holes right at the root system is an irrigation practice that also efficiently distributes fertilizer to each plant.

Given application of new technologies in irrigation, these methods will be enhanced under SIDA. (Growth Publishing for SEARCA) (Melody Aguiba)

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