Evaluation of Irrigation Scheduling and Sustainability Indicators as Tools to Increase the Adoption of Conservation Practices Among Central Alabama Farmers
Type of DegreeMaster's Thesis
Crop Soils and Environmental Sciences
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In recent years, there has been a significant surge in the adoption of conservation practices in agriculture, driven by a collective understanding of the urgent need to minimize risks, enhance profitability, and protect the environment. Practices such as cover crops, crop rotation, reduced tillage, and precision agriculture mitigate the risks associated with unpredictable weather patterns and climate change. By enhancing soil health and structure, conservation techniques mitigate the impact of extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, making farms more resilient. Furthermore, these practices boost profitability by optimizing the use of resources. Through efficient water management and reduced need for chemical inputs, farmers can cut costs while maintaining or even increasing yields. Additionally, conservation methods protect the environment by reducing soil erosion, preserving biodiversity, and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Due to unpredictable weather patterns, such as the increased frequency of flash droughts and extreme weather events, climate-related crop production challenges faced by Alabama necessitate a deep understanding of peanut growth and water requirements. Evaluating irrigation management strategies is crucial to comprehend the impact of irrigation on peanut yield and enhance irrigation water use efficiency. Simultaneously, sustainable agriculture practices are essential for environmental preservation and food security. This study merges these critical aspects, focusing on peanut crops and increasing adoption of sustainable agriculture in Alabama, USA. The first chapter focuses on irrigation scheduling in peanut cultivation. The study aimed to evaluate the impact of various soil water deficit levels on peanut growth and yield using seasonal analyses with 30 years of weather data. The peanut growth model CROPGRO-peanut in the Decision Support System for Agrotechnology Transfer (DSSAT) software was calibrated and validated to achieve this objective. The calibration used parameters such as leaf area index, leaf and stem weight, total biomass, pod weight, pod number, and volumetric water content. The study used 30 years of weather data and on-farm experimental data collected in 2021 and 2022 from Lee County, AL. Model validation affirmed its reliability in predicting crop output. Abundant and well-distributed rainfall parameters were employed to categorize dry and wet years, and despite complexities, it simulated various variables, demonstrating its capability. The study highlighted the relationship between weather conditions and irrigation management. The results showed that yield losses increase as the soil water deficit increases due to the lack of irrigation frequency. In parallel, the second chapter explored the use of sustainability indicators inside the Fieldprint Calculator developed by the Field to Market consortium to evaluate the impact of various crop management strategies towards sustainability. The study's objectives involved understanding the current applications and benefits of the indicators and identifying opportunities and barriers to their adoption, thereby contributing valuable insights to sustainable agriculture knowledge. The study engaged five Central Alabama farmers in comparative analyses to assess the impact of crop management in diverse metrics such as soil carbon, soil conservation, water quality, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions. These analyses revealed variations in water quality and energy consumption and underscored the importance of adopting strategies to strengthen nutrient management and irrigation efficiency. Conservation practices, reduced tillage, and cover cropping were crucial for soil carbon preservation as indicated by the soil carbon indicator. These results, indicators outputs and comparison of indicator values resulted from farmers management practices, were presented at field days with farmers, consultants, industry personnel, and governmental agencies employees. The challenges the team had engaging farmers with these topics, the questions participants had regarding the indicators, the potential for using the indicators as conservation practices benchmarking tools suggested the need for more of this type of educational programs and active farmer participation. Overcoming resistance to change and addressing social barriers were recognized as essential steps toward fostering a sustainable farming culture. This research underscored the importance of the right time of irrigation application and the use of irrigation scheduling in peanut crops, emphasizing the need for tailored strategies to balance water conservation and yield enhancement. Additionally, the study highlights the challenges and opportunities in promoting sustainable agricultural practices, such as integrating sustainability indicators into extension, and using tools like Fieldprint Calculator to track and measure field performance against state and national benchmarks. Collaboration, education, and community involvement emerged as pivotal components for fostering a culture of sustainable farming, ensuring the long-term viability of agriculture in Alabama.