Banner Transforming Agriculture: Maximizing Water Efficiency, Agricultural, and Environmental Benefits with Drip Irrigation and Alfalfa

Transforming Agriculture: Maximizing Water Efficiency, Agricultural, and Environmental Benefits with Drip Irrigation and Alfalfa

Water shortages in the Colorado River system are forcing everyone to look at how we use water in the arid Southwest and evaluate what uses benefit our society most. When we analyze all the uses of the water from the river, we find that most of it is used in agriculture, and most of the water used in agriculture is used to irrigate alfalfa. This simple connection makes it understandable that people are skeptical about farmers continuing to grow water-intensive crops such as alfalfa. But this line of reasoning overlooks the vital importance of alfalfa in our ecosystem. It omits alternative irrigation and fertigation solutions that can improve water efficiency and crop yields while reducing agricultural water demands in the arid Southwest.

Subsurface drip irrigation (SDI) is a time-tested and proven way to implement climate-smart agriculture at scale. By switching to subsurface drip irrigation, farmers and the environment stand to gain a variety of benefits that extend far beyond merely saving water; it also plays a vital role in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture.

Alfalfa – the business of growing it and the plant itself – is widely misunderstood. Unlike corn and wheat, which are recognizable and appear in our grocery stores or on our plates, alfalfa’s role in our diets is not as apparent. However, it plays a critical role in our food system, especially since it supports the dairy and beef industry as an essential forage. It is packed with protein and fiber, has highly accessible nutrients, and provides an ideal cost-per-calorie ratio perfect for feeding livestock. To view the issue in black-and-white terms discounts the immense importance of alfalfa to our food supply, the economic and environmental benefits provided in the regions where it's grown, and the innovative solutions that create thriving alfalfa growing conditions while improving water and nutrient efficiency.

Water Efficiency

major concern with growing alfalfa is ensuring farmers maximize the output per water unit. SDI can improve water efficiency by up to 50%. At Netafim, we work with more alfalfa growers than any other company in the United States. They turn to us for our expertise and counsel, and we’re happily converting farmers from flood irrigation to drip irrigation, helping them reduce water usage by an average of 25-40% and increasing yields by 25-40% as well. Installing a drip irrigation system allows farmers to continue growing alfalfa without violating water restrictions. Efficiency improvements mean we can maintain productive agricultural land using fewer resources. Instead of fallowing land to reduce water use, drip irrigation offers growers a way to continue farming in a way that increases their productivity while simultaneously decreasing their natural resource consumption. This is a win-win for everyone. We can reduce the use of water and other natural resources while maintaining agricultural output to ensure that we sustainably provide sufficient food for a growing population.

Soil Fertility and Stability

Netafim has converted countless farmers over the years because SDI systems keep their overhead costs down. Additionally, SDI gives a farmer the control needed to maintain ideal soil moisture levels and naturally promote soil fertility.

When land is flood-irrigated, soil and crops constantly cycle between being too wet and too dry. This volatility destroys soil fertility and harms crop production. On the other hand, drip irrigation maintains soil moisture levels throughout the growing cycle, allowing bio-organisms and roots to flourish.

Alfalfa significantly improves soil fertility by improving biodiversity, creating insecticide resistance, and improving water retention. The plant’s root structure helps soil retain moisture, preventing erosion and resulting in more stable soils that are resilient to extreme weather like extended drought or heavy rains. Alfalfa’s deep roots also extract water from further down in the soil than other crops, conserving water while growing. Its deep root system allows the plant to absorb nutrients in the soil that could otherwise contaminate nearby bodies of water. With their massive underground biomass, these deep roots also capture more carbon and store it in deeper soil layers than most other crops. Additionally, when irrigated correctly, alfalfa naturally stores nitrogen in the soil, improving soil fertility for the next crop rotation. 

Photo and Research Credit: 2022 UC Davis research by Dan Putnam and Emily Meccagge, titled Profitable Alfalfa Production Sustains Environment 

Netafim’s SDI systems are advanced precision farming systems that play a crucial role in enhancing farm resiliency. If they don’t adopt these systems but continue traditional irrigation practices, farmers in the Colorado River Basin may face the daunting prospect of significantly reducing acreage or ceasing operations altogether. The conversion to SDI offers a transformative solution, enabling farmers to optimize water usage, maintain profitability, and achieve sustained success. These SDI systems demonstrate versatility, proving effective across multiple crop rotations and consistently delivering excellent results.

Moreover, SDI has already established itself as the irrigation system of choice for high-value crops like tomatoes. Including alfalfa in a rotation with these crops allows a grower to reap all the benefits of alfalfa while also ensuring that they maximize the profitability of their advanced precision farming system. This choice ensures optimal water utilization and maximizes the natural benefits of no-till farming and crop rotation. These advantages, including improved soil health and carbon sequestration, contribute to a higher return on investment for many years to come. SDI systems boast a 15-year lifespan, yet many Netafim farmers have successfully maintained their systems for over 30 years.

The initial capital investment for growing tomatoes using SDI can be recouped at current market prices within just two years. Following this period, farmers experience reduced operating costs, increased profits, and the flexibility to introduce other forage crops, such as alfalfa or other commodity crops, into their rotation. This strategic diversification safeguards against potential fluctuations in market prices. Notably, integrating alfalfa into a crop rotation is an effective regenerative practice, enhancing soil fertility, capturing carbon, and remaining profitable – an essential measure of sustainability.

Carbon Sequestration, Nitrogen and Biodiversity

Alfalfa naturally improves soil nitrogen levels and sequesters carbon in the soil. It is a perennial crop with roots growing up to 15 feet deep. The deep roots pull carbon from the air, storing it deeper in the soil than other plants. Thriving and correctly irrigated alfalfa has been shown to improve the plant’s naturally occurring ability to fix nitrogen and store carbon in the soil. Nitrogen makes up the building blocks of a plant’s DNA and is critical for crop production. Crop rotations following alfalfa offer unique advantages by reducing the need for synthetic nitrogen application for one to two years. This is attributed to the nitrogen fixed by alfalfa, which, in a more accessible form, benefits the subsequent crop without leaching into surrounding bodies of water as readily. The incorporation of carbon and nitrogen into the soil through alfalfa's root system occurs without the necessity for tilling, preserving the natural microbiome in the soil. Soil is the most biodiverse habitat and is home to 59% of all life on Earth. Human health depends on the health of our soils.

In addition to its soil-enriching properties, alfalfa hosts numerous pollinator species, fostering a habitat for up to 1,000 insect species, including beneficial predators like beetles that aid in controlling aphids. It is also an excellent habitat for biodiversity in wildlife, mammals, and soil-dwelling organisms. 

The Transformative Shift from Flood to Drip Irrigation

Growing alfalfa can be a transformative shift when integrated into a farming system that prioritizes soil health, reduces natural resource use, and enhances profitability. The transition from traditional flood irrigation to drip irrigation transforms the cultivation of alfalfa from a questionable use of resources into a strategic and environmentally beneficial practice that aligns with sustainable agriculture and regenerative practices. Our world has limited resources, and water availability will only decrease as climate change challenges continue. The agricultural community must work together to prioritize growing more crops with less available water, more efficiently using all resources, and regenerating our soils to withstand the damage expected from more extreme weather.

As the Colorado River Basin and the West grapple with the challenges of climate change, the need for sustainable practices becomes even more apparent. Netafim's commitment to integrating drip irrigation into alfalfa cultivation is not just an industry innovation; it's a testament to our shared responsibility as custodians of the land. We recognize that water scarcity is a reality, and climate change requires a reevaluation of our agricultural practices. However, it is not necessary to eliminate or drastically reduce a crop that not only feeds our families but also provides more environmental benefits than many other crops.

The adoption of SDI in alfalfa is not just a pragmatic solution for individual farmers; it is a collective stride towards resilience in the face of extreme weather conditions. By prioritizing soil health, reducing natural resource usage, and bolstering profitability, we embark on a path that supports diverse ecosystems and contributes positively to our climate.

In essence, the shift to drip irrigation in alfalfa is not just a technological upgrade; it is a step rooted in Netafim’s values to demonstrate that sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship are not at odds with profitability and farmers’ well-being. We envision a future where our fields flourish, our waters are clean and abundant, our families are fed, and our planet thrives.

Interested in knowing more?

Interested in knowing more?