Hale County, Texas, cotton farmer Jeff Harrell figures 800 pounds of cotton per acre sounds pretty good for row-watered production.

But his 72 acres of subsurface drip irrigation produced better than three bales per acre last year and he expects similar yields this fall.

“I'll try to get some EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program) funds to add more drip,” he said.

Harrell farms at Halfway, Texas, near the Texas A&M Helms Research Farm, and took a few minutes recently to detail his irrigation system to participants in the annual Helms Farm research field day.

“It's hard to irrigate cotton with row water,” Harrell said, “so I installed the drip system and saw a significant yield increase last year.”

Consistent moisture is the key, he said. “I apply two-tenths inch per day with twice a day application. I applied 16 inches of water for the season.”

He said he might actually use more water through the drip system than he would with a center pivot unit. “But I can irrigate cotton without putting on a lot of water at a time.”

Uses efficiently

Before he installed the drip system he could water only half of the 72-acre field. “I have two wells and get 3.5 gallons of water per minute per acre.” That's not enough to water 72 acres down the rows.

He said the crop uses the water more efficiently. “The fields I row watered and irrigated with a pivot are cutting out (in mid September) and the drip system is still finishing out bolls.”

He said fertilization becomes more efficient, too. He injects nitrogen through the system and added 174 pounds of nitrogen last year. He also used 42 ounces of Pix. I probably had too high a plant population,” he said, “but I had a hard time keeping a stand last year.”

He said a crop consultant recommends seeding rate and irrigation scheduling.

He installed the drip tapes 12 to 24 inches deep and 40 inches apart. “I chose 40 inches because of germination,” he said. He believes the closer spacing makes more moisture available for the seed. Emitters are spaced 24 inches apart.

“In 2003, we had rain just right so germination was not a problem.”

Harrell said rainfall for the 2004 season was nearly ideal. “We had about nine inches during the season, June through September. We have had seasons with no rain during that time.”

Harrell said EQIP funding helps make the system affordable. “Drip costs about $1,000 per acre to install. A center pivot runs about $600.”

Gary Sokora, a zone engineer for the Natural Resources Conservation Service out of Lubbock, said Texas should have $80 million available for EQIP in 2005. He said the program uses a cost share formula, designed by county committees. Share can be as high as 50 percent of the system cost, he said. In Hale County, share for drip irrigation was 30 percent last year. The program also covers improvements farmers may make to other irrigation systems, including center pivot upgrades and pipelines.

Farmers may apply from January through April. Contracts are awarded during the summer and most growers get the funds and do the work the following year.

“It's hard to sign up and get a system done the same year,” Sokora said.

He said system cost depends on the tape spacing and field configuration. A 40-inch spacing between tape lines runs about $1,100 per acre. At 60 inches the cost drops to $900 per acre and at 80 inches to $700.

“That's an average cost for square or rectangular fields,” he said. “For center pivot corners, triangles, and odd shaped fields the price goes up.”

Sokora said counties also set acreage limits and establish priorities on system sizes. Systems up to 50 acres get top priority in Hale County. From 50 to 100 is a medium priority and anything over 100 is low on the list.

Keep applying

“The incentive program provides seed money to show what certain practices can do,” he said. “We always get more applications than we can fund, but growers should keep trying. It's worth the effort to get the help.”

He said from 20 percent to 25 percent of the farmers who have installed drip systems in the area have used EQIP funds to offset some of the cost.

Harrell can see where the payoff comes in. Significant yield increases also make the system easier to afford.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com