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University of Arizona’s Research Project to Enhance Wheat Production and Protein Content

The University of Arizona is conducting a one-year research project, sponsored by the Arizona Grain Research and Promotion Council, on irrigated agriculture utilizing high-tech sensors to enhance wheat production. The sensors help to identify areas of both low and high yield, and the amount of protein to help wheat growers use inputs such as fertilizer, water, weed control, and seeding rates efficiently.

The project is headed by Pedro Andrade, a UA precision agriculture expert working for Maricopa Agricultural Centre, who says that the need of the day is to have information on the impact of plant and soil properties on wheat production in the fields. The data can be used to create strategies to maximize growth of wheat and improve the quality of the grains. Increased yield and protein content will also lead to increased revenue for the farmers. Perfectly managed inputs are commonly found in the Great Plains and the Midwest of the U.S., the prime wheat production centers.

The present-day UA project concentrates on developing technology for the semi-arid regions in Arizona, where managing inputs is tricky. An input such as high sodium content in water affects both the quality and the production. Andrade carried out an on site analysis on plant and soil varieties, on Button and Bohnee Farming Partnership’s two fields measuring 37 acres, growing the regular Durum wheat variety, This operation is situated in Sacaton, on the Gila River Indian Reservation, and run by Karl Button.

Andrade and another UA research scientist, John Heun, mounted two active sensors, namely, the Veris 3000 sensor and the Crop Circle ACS-470 optical sensor on a rig created to analyze the electrical reaction of the plants and soil’s physical condition all over the field. A small-scale tractor, in the month of January, pulled the rig all the way through the wheat plants 6’ high with 3-4 leaves; i.e. the rig was pulled through when the wheat was at a premature growth cycle level to avoid lasting damage to the crops. The Veris 3000 discharged into the soil an electric current to quantify the EC (electrical conductivity) to differentiate the water retention capacity at depths of one and three feet.

Andrade divulged that they wanted to find if the sensor could detect the impact of features such as fertility rates, variety of  seeds used, changes in irrigation system in diverse soil types, such as sandy and clay loam, and assess which would be beneficial for increasing protein content and crop production. The first round of tests indicated that low protein content goes with areas conducting high EC.

The optical sensor developed by Holland Scientific scattered transformed polychromatic light on the plants and noted the quantity of light that was reproduced by the leaves in the electromagnetic spectrum’s near-infrared and visible regions, to identify the condition of the crops. Larger plants and those in good health absorbed more light, while more reflected light indicated plants of smaller size having insufficient nutrition.

The data obtained from the sensors help in providing economical solutions to enhance quality and wheat production. Nitrogen proved to be a crucial element for developing wheat protein. Sandy soils, unable to retain water, need more nitrogen than clay loam soils. Future possibilities may include GPS-based uneven seed planting instead of the regular uniform planting to boost up the crop yields. Furthermore, using auto-guided tractors and changing the quantity of seeds to be planted may also be advantageous. The data obtained from the EC and sensors guide wheat growers, indicating areas where more seeds are required and areas where less seeds are needed for more wheat production at less cost. UA’s Mike Ottman helped with plant physiology aspects of the project.

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