Assessing explanatory factors for variation in on-farm irrigation in US maize-soybean systems

Katherine E.B. Gibson, Haishun S. Yang, Trenton Franz, Dean Eisenhauer, John B. Gates, Paolo Nasta, Bhupinder S. Farmaha, Patricio Grassini

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Irrigation exhibits large variation across producer fields, even within same region and year. A knowledge gap exists relative to factors that explain this variation, in part due to lack of availability of high-quality irrigation data from multiple field-years. This study assessed sources of variation in irrigation using a large database collected during 9 years (2005–2013) from ca. 1400 maize and soybean producer fields in Nebraska, central USA (total of 12,750 field-year observations). The study area is representative of ca. 4.5 million ha of irrigated land sown with maize and soybean. Influence of biophysical (weather, soil, and crop type) and behavioral (producer skills, risk aversion) factors on irrigation was investigated. Field irrigation distributions showed a substantial number of fields received irrigation amounts that were well above average irrigation for same region-year. Variation in irrigation across fields, within the same region, was as large as year-to-year variation. Seasonal water deficit (defined as total reference evapotranspiration minus precipitation), soil available water holding capacity, and crop type explained about half of observed variation in field irrigation, indicating that producers adjusted irrigation depending upon site-year variation in these parameters. However, half of the variation in irrigation remained unexplained, indicating that producer behavior and skills play also an important role. There was evidence of a “neighbor” effect as fields that received large irrigation were surrounded by other fields with similarly large irrigation. Likewise, fields with above- or below-average irrigation in one year remained consistently above and below regional average irrigation, respectively, in other years despite similarity in weather and soil among fields. These findings indicate that irrigation decisions are influenced by both biophysical and behavioral factors, making predictions of field and regional irrigation extremely difficult. This study highlights the value of collecting on-farm irrigation data to understand producer decision-making and find opportunities to improve current water management in irrigated crop systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)34-40
Number of pages7
JournalAgricultural Water Management
StatePublished - Jan 15 2018


  • Irrigation
  • Maize
  • On-farm data
  • Soil
  • Soybean
  • Spatial variation
  • Weather

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Soil Science
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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