It could be like trying to squeeze blood from a turnip. But with a little help from Mother Nature, northern Texas Panhandle growers hope to produce 200-bushel corn from only 12 inches of supplemental irrigation — nearly half what’s normally applied.
It’s part of a project coordinated by the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District (NPGCD) headquartered in Dumas, with assistance from Texas AgriLife Extension in Amarillo. The study is aimed at stretching the region’s limited groundwater supplies even further, says Danny Krienke, a Perryton area grower and NPGCD chairman.
It’s geared toward finding more methods for growers to obtain sound yields on much less water, adds Nich Kenny, Texas AgriLife Extension agricultural engineer and irrigation specialist.
“Our goal is to evaluate sustained corn production feasibility under future conditions of significantly less water available for irrigation due to declining water well yield or regulatory impacts,” says Kenny. “This is a two-fold project that involves corn irrigation studies at the Texas AgriLife North Plains Research Field near Etter and on individual farms within the eight counties in the NPGCD area.”
The counties include Dallam, Hartley, Moore, Sherman, Hutchinson, Hansford, Ochiltree and Lipscomb. They are among the highest yielding corn producing counties in the state and depend virtually entirely on supplemental irrigation to make corn a successful cash crop. “We will have at least one farmer cooperator in each county to take part in the project,” says Kenny.
Retired AgriLife agricultural engineer and irrigation-management veteran Leon New is involved in the program. “This is an important NPGCD project and we are grateful to have Leon New help manage the program,” says Krienke.
Also assisting are NPGCD General Manager Steve Walthour, AgriLife Extension agronomist Brent Bean and AgriLife Extension economist Steve Amosson.
Growers need to know how much they can reduce irrigation and still remain in the corn production business. “The 200 bushels from 12 inches of irrigation is a goal and we need several whole-field demonstrations to determine if such reduced irrigation is feasible,” says Krienke, who is working with county agricultural agents to help line up grower cooperators for the project.
“I’m not saying that the NPGCD will go to 1 acre-foot of irrigation, but we’re trying to stay ahead of the curve. We’ve cut back from 2 acre-feet to 1 and a half acre feet. If we are forced to look at something less than that, we have to answer those questions.”
Making a 200-bushel crop in 12 inches of seasonal irrigation could be a stretch. Using more efficient irrigation systems, primarily low pressure rigs like low energy precision application (LEPA), will make it more achievable. But if the region suffers through one of those typical Texas drought periods, in which only a few inches of precipitation are accumulated, all bets are off.
“The average irrigation application is probably 22 to 24 inches of water applied during the growing season,” says Kenny. “Some even apply more — if they have the water.”
The 2009 growing season was an exception for rainfall. While producers in central and south Texas saw very little accumulations, much of the Panhandle area was the state’s garden spot. Above average rainfall in many counties enabled corn producers to reduce water applications.
Some even made a good crop (200 bushels or above) with only 7 inches of irrigation, an unheard of statistic for the region that normally receives about 18 inches of precipitation annually.
Realistically, growers know 2009 was an exceptional year. That’s why improved irrigation techniques are essential, both to enhance the water-use efficiency of crops and the economics involved, says Kenny.
At the Etter research field program, the study will involve one-third of a quarter-mile center pivot devoted to the 12-inch application. The program will vary some for grower cooperators.
“On a typical quarter-mile system, the third span of the pivot will be dedicated to the 12-inch irrigation treatment,” says Kenny. “A specially designed nozzle package will be used. The remainder of the sprinkler will maintain the producer’s existing application rate.”
Irrigation scheduling will remain the same as previously used on the farm. Water applied will be monitored by a flow meter and catch cans. Suggested seed varieties, the planting rate and planting date will be coordinated by AgriLife Extension.
Yield results will be monitored and collected at harvest. Yields and inputs will be gauged economically to help determine the feasibility of the program on a partial or full-scale corn operation.
A study by Kansas State University at Garden City shows that between 2004 and 2007 and reported at a Southwest Research-Extension Center report, corn after corn yields averaged 205 bushels per acre with 12 inches of irrigation. That compared to about 140 bushels from 5 inches of irrigation and about 120 bushels for 3 inches of irrigation.
Another KSU study at Tribune in the mid-2000s shows that strong yields are possible with limited irrigation. Troy Dumler, KSU Extension agricultural economist, helped compile the numbers from the study. It gauged corn, wheat, sorghum and soybean yields at 5, 10, and 15 inches of irrigation.
Five inches yielded about 113 bushels of corn; 10 inches yielded about 172 bushels, and 15 inches yielded about 201 bushels. Although the average yield at 10 inches of irrigation was 172 bushels per acre, the study yielded over 185 bushels at the same irrigation rate in four of the eight years of the study, with a high of 245 bushels in 2004.
“Overall, it’s certainly possible to obtain some pretty good yields with less water,” he says. “But a lot of farmers will think about the risk factor involved (in reduced irrigation).”
Kenny and Dumler say growers likely will face more pressure to reduce irrigation applications, either because of reduced groundwater sources or from state or federal regulations.
“The costs of fuel to operate irrigation engines and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) issues with emissions and engine types will continue to play a major role in irrigation costs,” says Kenny. “We’re seeing more efficient irrigation engines that meet emission compliance, and we’ll probably see more.”
More efficient irrigation will tie in with other efforts by growers to improve labor, fertilizer, seed, equipment and other costs.
“We just need to make sure that profitable yields can be maintained with more limited irrigation than we’re already seeing,” he says.