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New MSU Water-Saving Technology Nearly Doubles Harvests

During the summer of 2012’s drought in Michigan – the worst in the last half-century – Michigan State University researchers nearly doubled corn production on state test farms using a process that inserts soil water-saving membranes below plant root zones.

The subsurface water retention technology (SWRT) process developed by Alvin Smucker, MSU professor of soil biophysics and an AgBioResearch scientist, uses contoured, engineered films, strategically placed at various depths below a plant’s root zone to retain soil water. The SWRT membrane spacing also permits internal drainage during excess rainfall and provides space for  root growth.

Alvin Smucker

“This technology has the potential to change lives and regional landscapes domestically and internationally where highly permeable (sandy) soils have prohibited the sustainable production of food,” says Smucker. “Water retention membranes reduce quantities of supplemental irrigation, protect potable groundwater supplies, and enable more efficient use and control of fertilizers and pesticides.”

The applicability of SWRT extends to a broad range of agricultural crops, as well as growing cellulosic biomass feedstock on marginal lands. In last summer’s trials, on irrigated sands near Benton Harbor, Mich., SWRT-improved sands produced 145 percent more (640 cwt per acre) cucumbers than did the control fields (440 cwt per acre) without water saving membranes.

Smucker and his team dramatically increased corn grain production on SWRT-improved sands near East Lansing, Mich.  Last summer, irrigated corn grain yields increased 135 percent (213 vs. 158 bu/a for controls) on conventional 30-inch row spacings and 174 percent (268 vs. 154 bu/a for controls) on 15-inch row spacings.

diagram of SWRT

How SWRT works (click to enlarge)

Beginning in early 2013, Smucker and Kurt Thelen, professor in the plant, soil and microbial sciences department, together with MSU horticultural faculty Mathieu Ngouajio and Ron Goldy, will lead teams of scientists, engineers, and industrial agricultural experts in implementing the subsurface water retention membranes on farms in irrigated sandy regions of southwestern Michigan, and the semi-arid and arid regions of the southwestern and the midwestern United States. Expanded MSU faculty teams including John Whims and Amirpouyan Nejadhashemi are also exploring opportunities to overcome hunger with SWRT water-saving membranes in several global locations.

Smucker’s work in developing the prototype and conducting field testing was funded in part by the Michigan Initiative for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (MIIE).

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