A framework to improve irrigation design and operating strategies in the South African sugarcane industry.
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The purpose of this study was to develop a framework to assess irrigation design and operating strategies. This objective was achieved successfully and the framework was applied to formulate guidelines to increase farm profitability whilst using scarce resources, such as water and electricity, effectively. The study was targeted at sugarcane irrigated with semi-permanent irrigation systems. “ZIMsched 2.0”, a water balance and crop yield prediction model and the “Irriecon V2” economic assessment model were available at the start of the study. The missing link, however, was a relatively cost effective and efficient method to design and cost irrigation hardware alternatives. Irrigation hardware impacts on both the agronomic and economic performance of systems, for example, through different peak design capacities and associated operating limitations. Thus, a novel, spreadsheet-based irrigation design tool, with an automated costing component, was developed to complete the framework. The framework was used to investigate the costs and benefits of potential design and operating solutions to a selection of irrigation issues, including: over-irrigation on shallow soils, the opportunity to shift electricity use out of expensive peak periods and, the opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of deficit irrigation strategies. For shallow soils, the increase in system hardware costs, needed to better match water application to soils, increased margins due to more effective water use. Innovative deficit designs and operating strategies allowed for reductions in water and electricity costs. The reduced costs, however, did not always offset yield penalties and revenue loss resulting from water stress. The financial benefits of deficit irrigation strategies were shown when water savings were used to convert dry land cane into irrigated cane. This highlighted the differences between the direct and opportunity costs of water. Finally, a field work component, relating to the precise monitoring of irrigation strategies and corresponding crop responses was included in this study. Systems which enabled soil water potential and stalk extension to be monitored remotely via the internet were considered useful for the successful implementation of an optimum irrigation strategy. The easily accessible data allows for effective decision making and more importantly, reassures famers of the current state of their crop.