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Study Shows Arizona's Durum Wheat Grows More Efficiently Under Sprinkler Irrigation

pile of durum wheat
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Closeup of a pile of durum wheat at Arizona Grain.

A new study by Arizona researchers shows a high-quality crop can be more water efficient and make use of more fertilizer when irrigated by overhead sprinklers.

Arizona’s Durum wheat is prized for its quality and color, and some is shipped overseas for making pasta, mainly to Italy.

Most producers irrigate wheat by flooding the fields. But, a new study shows using overhead sprinklers not only saves on water use, but it also gives crops a much better chance at using all the nitrogen fertilizer applied. 

“More efficient watering systems are really needed here in the West," Kevin Bronson, lead researcher, said. "We have very high production but historically and in the last 30- to 40-year time period there hasn’t been as much attention paid to the efficiency of our irrigation systems.”

The results showed 70 percent to 90 percent of applied nitrogen was used when the Durum wheat was irrigated with sprinklers, while crops irrigated with surface flooding typically only use 50 percent or less.

And by controlling how much water and fertilizer was used, Bronson said 20 inches of water throughout the growing season is optimal, with 225 pounds of nitrogen per acre creating the best yields.

Durum wheat brought in more than $130,000 in sales alone for Arizona farmers in 2015, and last year local producers grew 98,000 acres of Durum wheat.

Bronson says it’s a sign that by using water more efficiently, producers have even more incentives to switch from flooding and hopes growers will start using the overhead sprinklers. “It is very positive that we don’t see many downsides except as I mentioned the initial high startup cost, but we just don’t see too many negatives with the sprinkler.”

Sprinkler systems can start at $60,000, but in a continuing drought, Bronson says more Arizona farmers are using water-efficient irrigation.

Casey Kuhn reports from KJZZ’s West Valley Bureau. She comes to Phoenix from the Midwest, where she graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.Kuhn got her start in radio reporting in college at the community public radio station, WFHB. She volunteered there as a reporter and worked her way up to host the half-hour, daily news show. After graduating, she became a multimedia reporter at Bloomington's NPR/PBS station WFIU/WTIU, where she reported for and produced a weekly statewide news television show.Since moving to the Southwest, she’s discovered a passion for reporting on rural issues, agriculture and the diverse people who make up her community.Kuhn was born and raised in Cincinnati, where her parents instilled in her a love of baseball, dogs and good German beer. You’ll most likely find her around the Valley with a glass of prosecco in one hand and a graphic novel in the other.She finds the most compelling stories come from KJZZ’s listeners.