Precision Irrigation Leads
By Tommy Horton
However, without reliable water resources, effective conservation practices and irrigation, you can forget about everything else.
It all starts with water.
No matter what part of the Cotton Belt is examined, a degree of concern always exists on this issue. And, as many experts will attest, if a problem exists in one region, it eventually becomes a problem in another region.
With changing weather problems and the threat of drought affecting so many regions of the Belt, the need for efficient irrigation practices has never been more important.
The good news for the cotton industry is that remarkable strides have been made in this area. Today, no producer takes water resources for granted anymore.
“I think producers definitely know the importance of efficient irrigation,” says Jim Bordovsky, research scientist based at the Texas AgriLife Center station at Halfway in Plainview.
“There isn’t a conversation out here on the High Plains that doesn’t include the topic of water availability. I’ve been involved with this for 31 years, and it affects not just producers but everything in our ag economy.”
Key Area For Irrigation
Bordovsky knows something about irrigation systems in a cotton production region that deals with sporadic rainfall patterns. From his vantage point in Plainview, he has a front-row seat for weather events in the High Plains.
The Texas researcher admits that there isn’t a single “silver bullet” in the irrigation research arsenal that will solve this problem. But he believes his team will continue to see positive results in the coming years. Most of the research centers on total water efficiency from irrigation, rainfall and any available soil moisture and is based on the timing of critical water needs in different configurations with the plant.
“We can be precise in our irrigation with a small amount of water to gain very high water use efficiency,” Bordovsky says. “It’s all about timing. We are being forced to use precision irrigation with limited water quantities as opposed to meeting all the water needs of a plant. In a nutshell, that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Researchers know that producers must be more efficient in their irrigation for several reasons. First, there is the question of water availability. In the Texas High Plains, that means making good use of water from the shrinking Ogallala aquifer. Second, there are recurring drought trends that occasionally wreak havoc on production efficiency.
It’s because of this environment that producers in the High Plains have moved away from furrow irrigation and now opt for LEPA (low energy precision application), center pivots and drip systems. That is a logical transition in a region that can only hope for an average yearly rainfall of 18 inches.
Bordovsky has done extensive research on all irrigation systems suited for the High Plains, and he has made some interesting discoveries.
For instance, even though drip irrigation has become increasingly popular in the High Plains, plant germination was occasionally affected in early drip installations. Bordovsky has done research on this problem and believes he’s making progress on the problem. Many experts have long thought that the location of drip tape in the ground and its distance from plant roots was a contributing factor to these situations.
“I think drip irrigation can be a good tool for producers,” says Bordovsky. “Cost is a big issue and has to be balanced with increases in yield and water efficiency. In the High Plains, sub-surface irrigation systems have become quite popular. However, it depends on the producer you talk to about this.”
Most researchers agree that drip irrigation can work, but the system must be maintained properly to realize any potential benefits. Bordovsky found that clogged lines could be cleared if manganese levels in the water were causing the problem. By adding hydrogen peroxide concentrate, the situation improved.
Other research has also documented results for breakthroughs in maintaining efficient irrigation. Bordovsky’s team has studied two approaches that directly deal with existing soil moisture profiles.
One test strategy involved the benefits of “banking water” for the future. In other words, a pre-plant soil moisture profile may indicate that a field is so dry that available water for it would be better utilized elsewhere, and it doesn’t need to be irrigated.
In one area, existing soil moisture and rain are saved for the next year’s crop, while making more water available in other areas.
Another strategy involves applying pre-plant irrigation water. Depending on conditions, a producer can apply water, divert it to other uses or save it – all in the same season.
Both strategies attempt to maximize water efficiency through irrigation timing and, consequently, use limited amounts of irrigation water.
Praise For Producers
Bordovsky says credit must be given to today’s cotton producer for being astute and sophisticated in his management practices – especially as it pertains to irrigation.
He says most producers are well aware of all the issues confronting them, and water availability is at the top of the list for Texas farmers.
“You must understand that producers have to balance the need to conserve water for the future with the current need to make a living when they farm each year,” Bordovsky says.
“They have to pay bills, raise their children and send them to college. They do a good job of balancing all of these things as they make their decisions each year.”
The Perfect Combination
One of Bordovsky’s colleagues is Dana Porter, Extension irrigation specialist in Lubbock, and she credits an unusual industry partnership that contributes to producers embracing new irrigation techniques.
She also says current economic conditions have forced producers to become more efficient.
“Water is a limited resource here in Texas, and producers have to be as efficient as possible,” she says. “We have some farmers who are rapid adopters and very savvy about the tools available to them.”
Porter also points to the working relationship among irrigation equipment companies, Extension specialists, conservation experts and producers as being advantageous for all parties in the industry.
“All of us seem to be on the same page, and that’s part of the strength of where we are in irrigation research,” she says. “You’re bound to make progress when you have this kind of cooperation among so many groups.”
Urban Sprawl Continues
One challenge facing producers in nearly every cotton-producing state is the tenuous relationship between ag communities and urban sprawl. This encroachment of city populations into farm areas is creating water rights battles across the country.
Porter believes it is another example of why farmers should be efficient in their irrigation.
“We see this problem everywhere nowadays,” she says. “It definitely puts more pressure on the producers to demonstrate that they are more efficient in their practices.
“Producers have always been good stewards of the land. But that’s as much of an economic survival strategy as it is basic values.”
As one researcher so aptly put it, the future looks good for cotton production on the Texas High Plains – mainly because of the crop’s ability to grow on lower levels of water.
“That’s what makes this crop so special,” he says. “It knows how to survive under pretty difficult conditions.”
High Plains Producers Embrace Irrigation Technology
For many years, producers within the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District No. 1, headquartered in Lubbock, Texas, have taken proactive stances toward water conservation by being responsive to new irrigation technologies as they are developed.
“Whether it is use of LEPA systems with furrow dikes, subsurface drip irrigation, irrigation scheduling based on computer models and/or soil moisture sensors or new cotton varieties, our producers understand that they must be good stewards of the area’s groundwater supply,” says HPWD general manager Jim Conkwright.
“Water is the backbone of our agricultural economy, and we appreciate our producers’ efforts to manage water wisely.”
Annual depth-to-water level measurements made in 2009 in a network of 1,200 privately owned water wells within the district’s 15-county service area indicated an average annual decline of -0.72 of a foot for the 10-year period (1999-2009) and -0.42 of a foot for the five-year period (2004-2009).
“From the cotton gins and the local civic clubs to the state legislature, groundwater is on everyone’s mind,” Conkwright says. “Public interest in water issues is as high as I have seen it.”
Recent Trends In Ag Water Management
• Improvements on irrigated acres between 1998 and 2003 have resulted in reduced water use on 18.5 million acres.
• Crop yields improved on 18.7 million acres and decreased energy costs on 15.3 million acres.
• U.S. Geological Survey reports the average irrigation application rate decreased from 43.6 acre-inches per acre in 1950 to 29.8 acre-inches in 2000.
• USDA Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey reports that $1.13 billion was invested in irrigation equipment, facility and improvements during 2003.
– Information provided by Cotton Incorporated