Water Saver: Oklahoma Master Irrigator Program

Water Saver

Oklahoma Extension launches innovative irrigation training

By Sumit Sharma and Saleh Taghvaeian (with Heather Martin)

A T T R I B U T I ON

Water Saver: Oklahoma Extension Launches Innovative Irrigation Training

Copyright © Extension Foundation Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). Published by Extension Foundation.

e-pub: 978-1-955687-13-3

Publish Date: May 3, 2022

Citations for this publication may be made using the following:

Sharma, S., Taghvaeian, S., and Martin, H. (2022). Water Saver: Oklahoma Extension Launches Innovative Irrigation Training (1 st ed). Kansas City: Extension Foundation. ####C######C###C#ISBN: 978- 955687-13-3

Producer: Ashley S. Griffin

Peer Review Coordinator: Rose Hayden-Smith

Technical Implementer and Co-writer: Heather Martin

Welcome to Water Saver: Oklahoma Extension launches innovative Irrigation Training , a resource created for the Cooperative Extension Service and published by the Extension Foundation. We welcome feedback and suggested resources for this publication, which could be included in any subsequent versions. This work is supported by New Technologies for Agriculture Extension grant no. 2020-41595-30123 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For more information please contact:

Extension Foundation c/o Bryan Cave LLP One Kansas City Place

1200 Main Street, Suite 3800 Kansas City, MO 64105-2122 https://impact.extension.org/

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TH E MA S T E R I R R I GA TO R T E AM

Sumit Sharma

Saleh Taghvaeian, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor Plant & Soil Sciences Oklahoma State University

Associate Professor/Extension Specialist Agricultural Water Management Oklahoma State University

Jason Warren, Ph.D.

Kevin Wagner, Ph.D.

Professor Plant & Soil Sciences Extension Specialist for Soil and Water Conservation Oklahoma State University

Associate Professor Plant & Soil Sciences Oklahoma State University Director, Oklahoma Water Resources Center

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Raging wildfires. Devastating hurricanes. Prolonged

dry periods in the middle of the country. These consequences

of climate change are becoming increasingly frequent and

severe.

In Oklahoma, recent droughts have significantly decreased water levels in lakes, reservoirs, and the Ogallala aquifer, putting pressure on farmers and communities that rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. In 2011 and 2012, the state lost more than $2 billion worth of crops because there wasn’t sufficient irrigation water. With water shortages likely to continue, Oklahoma farmers need innovative ways to manage irrigation and minimize risks to their fields and livestock. Inspired by a program developed by the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District, Extension specialists at Oklahoma State University created a Master Irrigator program to give farmers a fighting chance against these shortages. It provides cutting-edge,

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practical technologies and tools that farmers and other agricultural professionals can use to combat the effects of drought. During the four-day program, we give attendees advanced training on irrigation water management, irrigation system and equipment maintenance, energy conservation, water conservation and quality, and economics of irrigated agriculture. We also encourage them to share best practices with us and with each other as we develop and deliver the program. Since 2021, OSU Extension specialists Sumit Sharma, Jason Warren, Saleh Taghvaeian, and Kevin Wagner have presented the Master Irrigator program to 40 producers and other agricultural professionals in the Oklahoma Panhandle and in southwest Oklahoma. The third edition of the program is scheduled to begin in January 2023 and will include the content and delivery approaches that worked well in the first two versions and will reflect what we’ve learned about and from our target audience. Master Irrigator is a prime example of how Extension delivers evidence-based programs that address current community needs. It’s also a model of how to develop content that advances and leverages the expertise and experience of the participants.

These agencies contributed to the content of the OSU Extension Master Irrigator Program:

Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station Oklahoma Conservation Commission Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry

Oklahoma Farm Bureau

Oklahoma Panhandle Agriculture and Irrigation Association

Oklahoma Water Resources Board Oklahoma Water Resources Center

USDA-NRCS

The Master Irrigator Program: A Solution for Many Producers

One of the most important steps in developing the Master Irrigator events is to assemble an advisory panel to help create the curriculum. Each panel includes producers, consultants, and county Extension personnel from the area of the state where we will deliver the program, because crops, water sources, and irrigation

needs vary from region to region. This helps us develop content that addresses a wide range of agricultural requirements and gives everyone something to apply to their work in the field. For example, in the Panhandle the major crops are corn, grain, sorghum, and wheat, and all farms draw their water from the Ogallala aquifer, using center pivot irrigation systems. So the producers on the panel for that Master Irrigator program were primarily corn and wheat farmers. For the southwest program, we had more cotton farmers because that’s the

“My biggest takeaway was how smaller management decisions and shifts can result in benefits that add up over time.”

— Master Irrigator program participant

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predominant crop in that part of the state — we also included panel members who could make sure we adequately addressed the various kinds of irrigation that southwest farmers use.

There’s no magic number of advisory panel members, but each of our panels so far has included about 10 people, including producers (producers who represented approximately 70,000 irrigated acres), OSU educators, crop consultants, representatives from NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), and county Extension agents. Once an advisory panel is in place, we start building content for the sessions. We had written the first draft of the Panhandle program curriculum before we had assembled that panel, so we gave the members the draft and asked for feedback. Their first impressions were that it was too academic, so we revised it so that it balanced theory and practice. For example, in addition to reviewing soil-water relationships and talking about how moisture sensors function, we invited speakers who had been using sensors for years to share their experiences and talk about the decisions they make based on these technologies. We did not include field demonstrations of the equipment we covered because the best time to attract producers is in the winter, when there is no field work. We did cover these technologies during our field days during growing season in the fall.

Being open to revisions, even at the last minute, is key to making the Master Irrigator program work. As we saw who was registering for the southwest edition, for example, we made changes to the content based on what kinds of crops they farmed. We also used feedback from the pilot workshop participants to make changes to the topics in the second program.

Another critical piece of the Master Irrigation program strategy is to give incentives to

producers for attending. We met with officials from such state and federal agencies as the USDA-NRCS, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, and the Oklahoma Conservation Commission (full list of content contributors in sidebar, page 5) to determine the appropriate incentives and decided on three:

Graduation day for the 2002 Master Irrigator course

 reimbursement of up to $2,000 for the purchase of irrigation technology and equipment (funded by the Oklahoma Conservation Commission and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board

 points in the Environment Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which gives farmers an advantage when applying for federal money to offset the cost of water conservation systems

 well auditing from OSU’s mobile irrigation lab, which measures the efficiency of crop irrigation systems

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We included these incentives on the flyers that were mailed and emailed to people on our local county extension listservs, on the social media posts and other promotions created by the agricultural department communication staff, and in a Farm Journal advertisement (supported by the Extension Foundation). To date, 10 producers have taken advantage of the audit, the sensor reimbursement, or both — and more have said they will use these post-program services this year. These services not only give producers valuable data, they give our Extension team an opportunity to stay connected to and build relationships with our target community members.

Master Irrigator participants can request a free irrigation audit, which OSU has completed for six producers to date.

Program Impact

Participation in the 2021 and 2022 sessions was strong — the Panhandle workshops drew 21 attendees, and the southwest program had 19. Post-program surveys for both years indicate that most participants reported a significant to moderate increase in knowledge about irrigation topics after participating in the program and that they trusted and knew how to use the information they learned.

Table 1

Program

Post-Program Knowledge Increase

Significant

Moderate

Slight

Panhandle

39%

56%

5%

Southwest Oklahoma

41%

52%

7%

Table 2

Strongly Agreed

Statement

Agreed

As a result of this workshop, I am more able to make informed decisions about irrigation. As a result of this workshop, I know of people I can go to for further support about irrigation. As a result of this workshop, I know of additional resources I can access regarding irrigation.

64%

36%

86%

14%

71%

29%

The material presented in this workshop was credible and trustworthy.

79%

21%

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Overall, the Master Irrigator program seems to be resonating with participants: “My biggest takeaway was how smaller management decisions and shifts can re sult in benefits that add up over time (water savings),” said one producer from the Panhandle. “I liked the non - biased information,” said a producer from southwest Oklahoma.

Program Development

The major challenge we had in designing this program was figuring out how to address the variety of irrigation issues our target farmers may be facing and incorporating all the information in one program that flows well. But with every cohort we create, we refine our process and get better at selecting and compiling content. As we develop the next Master Irrigator curriculum, we are considering a variety of revisions. Among the topics we might cover more in depth are chemical application through irrigation systems and water use efficiency. We might also include discussion about planting alternative crops. We have thought about offering continuing education units for those participants who are professional agronomists, who need to maintain their certification, but that’s likely not something we’ll do i n the near future.

A Big Hill, A Big Opportunity

We know that advanced irrigation technology can play an important role in solving Oklahoma’s chronic water shortage. But these tools require advanced knowledge, which is why not many farmers use them. For example, only 5% of farms in the state use moisture sensors — this is less than half the national percentage. We have a long way to go, but this is a huge opportunity for the Master Irrigator program, which we believe is raising the level of technical irrigation expertise among producers while decreasing the stress on the state’s water sources.

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