Dr. Mallika Nocco flying a drone used for mapping evapotranspiration near an Eddy Covariance tower over a potato field in Wisconsin

The Conservation Irrigation Lab launches agricultural water management research and extension program at UW-Madison

Save water. Renew Soils. Support Farms. This is Dr. Mallika Nocco’s vision for the Conservation Irrigation Lab, her research and extension program that recently moved from California (UC-Davis) to Wisconsin (UW-Madison). Dr. Nocco’s mission is to provide science-based information for growers, managers, and policy makers to navigate the ever-changing terrain of sustainable agricultural practices and implement water-saving measures that advance production goals. Her group collaborates across disciplines and believes deeply in the power of applied research and cooperative extension.

Dr. Mallika Nocco working to install lysimeters in the Wisconsin Central Sands as a graduate student

Dr. Nocco grew up in Minnesota and studied philosophy, cultural studies, and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. After graduating, she moved to Wisconsin and worked in pharmaceutical sales for about five years. She found a passion for gardening and extension through participating in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Master Gardener Program. Falling in love with plants, soil, and ecosystems led Dr. Nocco back to school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study soil science for a master’s degree, and environment and natural resources, with a focus on agrohydrology, for her doctoral degree. After earning her Ph.D., Dr. Nocco was fortunate to receive a 2017 David H. Smith Postdoctoral Conservation Fellowship. She used this fellowship to study irrigated agriculture through a wide-angle lens in the Northern Great Lake states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan and expand her work further into precision water management with high-resolution ET mapping. Dr. Nocco leverages her nontraditional liberal arts and business background to effectively communicate and strategically partner with farmers and stakeholders. She loves giving extension talks, workshops, and is the co-host of the Water Talk Podcast, which recently won the Soil and Water Conservation Society’s Conservation Innovation award.

In 2019, Dr. Nocco launched the Conservation Irrigation Lab. The laboratory includes undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral researchers working across the breadth and depth of soil and water conservation challenges in the Midwest and California with a strong focus on specialty crops like potatoes and almonds. In the Midwest, growers primarily irrigate specialty crops on very sandy soils using supplemental irrigation. This is because rainfall is usually greater than the rate of water loss from the soil. In California, precipitation does not fall at the optimal time and evapotranspiration is far greater than precipitation where these crops are grown. Dr. Nocco works with her research group to quantify irrigated crop water use, groundwater recharge and drainage, nitrate leaching, irrigation-climate interactions, and tradeoffs associated with changes in land use related to Midwestern irrigated agriculture.

Irrigation Decision Support Systems research trial in processing tomatoes at sunset. Photo by Dawson Diaz.

The  Conservation Irrigation Lab in the department of Biological Systems Engineering focuses on three research themes:

  • Optimizing irrigation, or refining the magnitude, timing, and spatial application of irrigation or fertigation to leverage outcomes beyond yield, such as crop quality, nutrition, disease and pest suppression, and water conservation.
  • Crop water monitoring and measurement. Dr. Nocco’s research group is developing new tools and algorithms to map crop evapotranspiration and water or salinity stress at very high resolutions. Dr. Nocco thinks of this as “applied remote sensing” to improve management of soils and water across fields and over time. Many specialty crop growers are purchasing drones and cameras but are unsure how to incorporate them into farm operations or use the data generated. Dr. Nocco is interested in helping new mappers transform these data into insights.
  • Regenerative agriculture. Dr. Nocco sees regenerative agriculture as a ‘boundary object’ or common term to bring many different groups of people with different backgrounds together under similar motivations. Dr. Nocco is interested in bridging regenerative agricultural practices and agrohydrology to better understand how these practices might transform soil moisture dynamics, drainage, nutrient leaching, and recharge. The Conservation Irrigation Lab is working on strategies to conserve water, while also promoting carbon sequestration and soil health.

The Conservation Irrigation Lab is working on strategies to conserve water, while also promoting carbon sequestration and soil health. Overall, Dr. Nocco is very excited to again focus on solutions for the ecosystems, growers, scientists, water users, crops, and policies in the Midwestern United States.

Mallika Nocco, Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist in Agrohydrology, UW-Madison

Headshot of Mallika Nocco.

As a Cooperative Extension scientist, Dr. Nocco collaborates with scientists, growers, policymakers, and water districts to develop irrigation management strategies that balance farm livelihoods and water conservation. Her research and extension program is designed to meet the growing and changing needs of agricultural communities. Dr. Nocco believes that scientists and growers should exchange knowledge and build sustainable solutions together, so she works to develop workshops, short-courses, field demonstrations, and webinars to engage folks from all sides of the farm table.

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