Reducing irrigation can actually improve economics when growing corn. Not only does it save water, but it also can improve production in some cases, according to Nich Kenny, a Texas AgriLife Extension Service irrigation specialist in Amarillo.

 Last summer Kenny, along with AgriLife Extension agents in five counties, cooperated on the “Efficient Profitable Irrigation in Corn” or EPIC project, as it is known to producers. The project is a result demonstration effort conducted by AgriLife Extension and funded primarily by the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District.

“We know there are about 900,000 acres of corn grown in the High Plains,” Kenny said. “We also know that at least half of those acres are managed by producers who are shooting for the highest yield. If we can reduce irrigation annually by 1 inch on the half of the acres aimed at high yields, it would equate to saving 37,500 acre feet of water or 12 billion gallons of water annually.” 

And if this past summer’s demonstrations are any indication, that is a possibility, Kenny said, adding that the producers involved saw anywhere from 1 inch to 3 inches of savings on their corn crop with no reduction of yield and even an improvement of yield in three cases.

The premise behind EPIC is to manage irrigation water for maximized water efficiency, he said. The project is targeting corn producers who historically employ efficient irrigation systems and solid agricultural practices in a production strategy focused on maximized yields.

“There’s a tapering-off point in the relationship of production and water applied,” Kenny said. “Yield will increase with each increment of water only up to a point, and then the law of diminishing returns applies.

“Our question was ‘If you manage for maximum profitability instead of yield, will you be able to save water,’ and initially the answer we believe is yes,” he said.

This past summer, Kenny and the agents conducted demonstrations with producers in Dallam, Hartley, Hutchinson, Ochiltree and Sherman counties. The Dallam County demonstration was under such extreme drought it could not be completed.

In all the locations, situations were selected where side-by-side plots were used, one as a “control” and the other as the “EPIC” plot. On the EPIC plots, three technologies—AquaSpy, AquaPlanner and Pivotrac—were used to manage irrigation application without producer knowledge or access to maintain the purity of the control.

The control plot was titled the “legacy” plot and was managed according to the specific producer’s standard practice. The EPIC plot was managed with AgriLife Extension inputs based on best management practices and information from management tools, Kenny said.