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Pecanigator: tiny device with a funny name helps pecan growers

Researchers at New Mexico State University are working to help pecan growers earn more money while protecting their trees from water stress. Their solution is the Pecanigator, a palm-sized device that tells growers when to water.

Richard Heerema holds the Pecanigator in a New Mexico State University pecan orchard. (NMSU Agricultural Communications photo by Darren Phillips)

The Pecanigator resembles a slide rule. Growers simply line up the date they last watered with their soil consistency to determine when they need to irrigate again. Research done by NMSU shows many growers in southern New Mexico either irrigate too often or not enough.

"Tree water stress equals poor yield," said Richard Heerema, an NMSU extension pecan specialist. "This helps growers put the right amount of water on the orchard at the right time."

Heerema said pecans are one of the state's most valuable crops. In 2006, New Mexico produced an estimated 46 million pounds of pecans; more than any other state in the country. He said knowing how often to water and how much water to apply can be the difference between a successful year and an off year for a grower.

"We have a computer model that predicts the yield loss by not irrigating properly. It's a substantial loss," said John Mexal, assistant department head of Plant and Environmental Sciences at NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics. "The Pecanigator helps growers make the most of their water."

Mexal said the majority of pecan growers in southern New Mexico have small orchards.

"Small growers stand to benefit the most from the Pecanigator," he said. "This will help produce higher yield withsmaller acreage. This will make more money for growers."

The Pecanigator is designed only for flood irrigation. Its watering calculations are based on weather data taken at NMSU's Leyendecker Plant Science Research Center in the Mesilla Valley, making the irrigation calculations most accurate for growers in that area.

In the future Heerema and Mexal would like to expand the program, using data from other weather stations around the region. Their ultimate goal is to put all the information online, where growers would set up accounts with their zip codes and soil types and the computer would let them know when best to water based on real-time weather data.

Heerema and Mexal credit other members of their team, including Ted Sammis, a state climatologist, Jeff Kallestad, a research associate, and Jerry Downs, a graphic artist, for the work.

The project is part of NMSU's continuing efforts to help improve the lives of citizens around New Mexico. It was funded by the Agricultural Research Service and the Rio Grande Basin Initiative, a partnership between NMSU and Texas A&M University for water conservation along the Rio Grande.