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Water-Use Efficiency Supports Sustainability

• By Brent Murphree,
Memphis, Tennessee •

Brent Murphree

Throughout the Mid-South, Cotton Incorporated-funded water research is making huge impacts on how cotton farmers manage their irrigated crop.

Over the past 30 years, producers have improved irrigation efficiency in cotton 82 percent, according to Field to Market, an alliance of stakeholders that emphasizes sustainable resources across the agricultural supply chain. The Cotton Sustainability Task Force — made up of representatives from Cotton Incorporated, The Cotton Board and the National Cotton Council — has set an industry goal to increase that irrigation water-use efficiency an additional 18 percent by 2025.

Water-use efficiency has been a high priority for research since the cotton industry began discussions about sustainability. Understanding that saving water means cost savings to growers makes it an easy area on which to focus as Cotton Incorporated continues to find ways to lessen cotton’s environmental impact.

Louisiana Farmers Participate

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With the help of Field to Market, Cotton Incorporated has been tracking water-use improvements made by cotton producers in the Delta and across the Cotton Belt.

Dr. Andy Jordan and Rachel Lee of Jordan & Associates are making on-site visits to about 50 cotton producers in Louisiana. On a farm-by-farm basis, Jordan and Lee are establishing what water-use enhancements have been made and uploading that data to Field to Market. Improvements can include runoff control, nutrient retainment, irrigation tracking and precision scheduling.

“Producers realize the need for tracking their water-use improvements,” says Lee, the soil health research implementation manager at Jordan Associates. “They know that consumers are questioning our impact on the environment and need to show the positive steps producers have been taking to improve sustainability.”

Lee says those growers who have implemented conservation plans or best management practices (BMPs) have been able to see the improvements in their fields. Where on-site improvements are needed, recommendations by conservation scientists and Extension specialists can be used to increase efficiency in those areas.

cotton planted into rye

Cotton planted into cereal rye in Gould, Arkansas, is helping farmers reduce soil and nutrient loss while increasing soil structure, improving irrigation efficiency and adding to the producer’s bottom line.

Cotton Incorporated funds a portion of the water-use research, which has led to increased water savings. And, in the Mid-South, as producers continue to address old water issues, such as soil loss, drought mitigation and nutrient runoff, new issues like aquifer depletion and precise supplemental irrigation application are becoming a higher priority.

Arkansas Discovery Farm

Outside of Dumas, Arkansas, cotton producer Steve Stevens has partnered with several University of Arkansas researchers and the Cotton Incorporated State Support Program funding to measure water use on the university’s Discovery Farm in Tillar. He is tracking rainfall and water use to determine his operation’s efficiency, run off and soil retainment.

“We’ve determined that with cover crops and precision irrigation, we are able to improve the building blocks of the soil, keep the soil and nutrients from washing out of the field, and improve the efficiency of irrigation,” Stevens says.

He says he has achieved better than 90 percent irrigation efficiency and reduced nutrient runoff to 4 percent of nitrogen and 2 percent of phosphate.

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Several factors have contributed to Stevens’ success at the Discovery Farm. For example, computerized hole selection is a computer application that optimizes the water flow from the collapsible poly tubing used to irrigate by determining the best size hole to punch in the pipe. The calculations are based on field size, soil type and soil moisture.

Soil moisture probes in Stevens’ fields have shown that cereal rye is helping to get moisture deeper into the cotton root zone by opening the soil. Rainfall is able to penetrate deeper so that less supplemental irrigation is needed.

He also has noted that new irrigation techniques have saved him about 6 cents per acre.

In addition to the research at the Steven’s farm and the data collection in Louisiana, at least eight other water efficiency research projects are being supplemented by Cotton Incorporated in the Mid-South region.

Brent Murphree is the Cotton’s Board’s regional communication manager for the Mid-South. Email him at bmurphree@cottonboard.org.