Biological Systems Engineering


Date of this Version



Published in Agricultural Water Management 203 (2018), pp 63–74.

doi 10.1016/j.agwat.2018.02.022


Copyright © 2018 Elsevier B.V. Used by permission.


Improvements in soil water balance modeling can be beneficial for optimizing irrigation management to account for spatial variability in soil properties and evapotranspiration (ET). A remote-sensing-based ET and water balance model was tested for irrigation management in an experiment at two University of Nebraska-Lincoln research sites located near Mead and Brule, Nebraska. Both fields included a center pivot equipped with variable rate irrigation (VRI). The study included maize in 2015 and 2016 and soybean in 2016 at Mead, and maize in 2016 at Brule, for a total of 210 plot-years. Four irrigation treatments were applied at Mead, including: VRI based on a remote sensing model (VRI-RS); VRI based on neutron probe soil water content measurement (VRINP); uniform irrigation based on neutron probe measurement; and rainfed. Only the VRI-RS and uniform treatments were applied at Brule. Landsat 7 and 8 imagery were used for model input. In 2015, the remote sensing model included reflectance-based crop coefficients for ET estimation in the water balance. In 2016, a hybrid component of the model was activated, which included energy-balance-modeled ET as an input. Both 2015 and 2016 had above-average precipitation at Mead; subsequently, irrigation amounts were relatively low. Seasonal irrigation was greatest for the VRI-RS treatment in all cases because of drift in the water balance model. This was likely caused by excessive soil evaporation estimates. Irrigation application for the VRI-NP at Mead was about 0 mm, 6 mm, and –12 mm less in separate analyses than for the uniform treatment. Irrigation for the VRIRS was about 40 mm, 50 mm, and –98 mm greater in separate analyses than the uniform at Mead and about 18mm greater at Brule. For maize at Mead, treatment effects were primarily limited to hydrologic responses (e.g., ET), with differences in yield generally attributed to random error. Rainfed soybean yields were greater than VRI-RS yields, which may have been related to yield loss from lodging, perhaps due to over-irrigation. Regarding the magnitude of spatial variability in the fields, soil available water capacity generally ranked above ET, precipitation, and yield. Future research should include increased cloud-free imagery frequency, incorporation of soil water content measurements into the model, and improved wet soil evaporation and drainage estimates.