A new irrigation well and state-of-the-art drip irrigation system may dictate research here for decades, according to one scientist at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station at Vernon.

“We don’t have a drip system one here in this region,” said Dr. John Sij, professor of agronomy. “But there are plenty of areas where drip could be utilized.”

A new drip irrigation system will be put in this winter at the Chillicothe research station, Sij said. “It will open up a whole array of research opportunities that will ultimately benefit the producers in the region by making their water go further.

“We know things about drip, but we can learn a lot more with our system,” he said. “Hopefully, we will become the premier drip irrigation site in Texas.”

With a new well in place, researchers in the future will be able to expand irrigated acreage from 15 to 45, Sij said. The new system also will allow them to increase the number of replicated studies.

“We want versatility,” he said. “We want to have three to four replications for each study.”

Under the new system, researchers can evaluate deficit irrigation and termination timing all in the same season. In addition to cotton, they can study other crops under drip irrigation, such as corn, soybeans, canola, sorghum and forages, Sij said.

“It will also allow us to look at how moisture moves in the profile under different irrigation regimes,” he said. “We’ll be looking at nitrate levels in the soil profile and how water from drip impacts nitrate movement.”

In addition, the drip irrigation system allows nitrogen and other fertilizers to be introduced where these nutrients can be immediately utilized by the plant, Sij said.

Comparisons can be done with the standard side-dress application of fertilizer, which requires rain to move the fertilizer to the roots of plants, Sij said. Researchers can determine how fertilizer applied through drip affects yields and the level at which it would provide the best economic returns.

“We want to use cover crops to augment irrigation, because clean-till systems leave the fields vulnerable to erosion,” he said. “We can cut back (water use) 25 percent with a cover crop. So, if the producer can irrigate 25 percent more crop land with his water resources, his whole operation’s bottom line can come up.”

More irrigation acreage equals more income and allows more than just traditional row crops to be grown in the area, Sij said.

He hopes to look at producing small grains using drip, along with vegetables, foundation seed and other high-value enterprises.

Although drip requires less physical labor than, say, furrow irrigation, it will require more intense management, Sij said. The upfront cost of the system is expensive. However, it will last a long time, and “if you can get a bale to a bale and a half more per acre, it doesn’t take as long to pay off that system.”

He estimates a typical system will cost about $700 to $800 per acre with drip tape installed on 80-inch centers. With 80-inch centers, the tape is placed between every other 40-inch spaced row of cotton and the drip irrigation will water two rows simultaneously.

That’s turnkey installation, however, and as much as $300 of that cost can be saved if the producer does some of the work, Sij said. A system based on 40-inch centers will cost around $1,100 per acre turnkey.

The new system being installed at the Experiment Station will have both 40-inch and 80-inch drip line centers “so we can grow lots of different crops. It makes us more versatile,” he said.