A young farmer from eastern Nebraska is pushing irrigation management to a new level of precision. Nick Emanuel, founder and president of CropMetrics, is a leader in variable rate irrigation management. The innovations he developed on his farm are helping growers match water application rates to soil type, conserving water and reducing yield variability. “He’s a small-town Nebraska boy who is making a global impact on water management,” says Dave Varner, a University of Nebraska Extension scientist in southeast Nebraska.

Emanuel, 33, grew up on a farm near North Bend, Neb., population 1,179. He attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agronomy and GIS remote sensing. In 2005, Emanuel joined John Deere’s Agricultural Management Solutions division, working in precision-ag research and development.

Emanuel moved back home to North Bend in 2007 to farm with his dad and uncle. The family grows 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans on Platte River Valley soils ranging from fine sand to clay loam. The Emanuels were doing grid soil sampling, and experimenting with variable-rate seeding and N application.

“But when we analyzed our yield data, we found that our yields were driven more by water and how that interacted with different soil types,” Emanuel says. About 80% of the farm is irrigated, primarily with center pivots. “Water not only affected crop yields, but also N utilization and seeding rate response,” Emanuel says. His conclusion: Without optimum irrigation, other variable-rate management practices failed to deliver full benefits.

Yet, the only way to irrigate was to apply a single rate. “We had no option for anything else,” Emanuel says. “So, we’d put on the correct amount of water for the majority soil type in the field, but with our soil variability, we’d end up over-watering some soils and under-watering others. That’s when I started playing with variable rate irrigation ideas.”