Maximize Water Value and Profitability with Proper Irrigation Rates and Timing

As the 2014 cotton season moves steadily toward harvest, it’s certainly not too early for growers to begin planning for next year. And they’ll have plenty of factors to consider when looking how to profitably grow and manage cotton in a time of hard input costs and soft market prices.

One of the areas that growers should consider carefully is irrigation. In the High Plains of Texas, which received some relief in 2014 from several years of relentless drought, the key may be determining the best value and efficiency for water timing.

Speaking at the Raising More Profit seminar in Lubbock, TX, Dr. Jim Bordovsky, senior research scientist with Texas A&M AgriLife, shared results from a multi-year study on water use efficiencies from pivot irrigation.

“One of the things we’ve seen over the last several years is it’s extremely difficult to get water in the ground,” he said. “We tend to want to apply water early in the season and store water in the soil profile for use later in the growing season. It’s tough to do that.”

The project focuses on determining water use efficiencies within different periods of the growing season to help improve irrigation recommendations for maximizing yield and, ultimately, grower profit.

The four-year study, concluding in 2014, measured how various irrigation capacities during several in-season irrigation periods impacted yield. Three different irrigation rates – zero water, 1/8-inch per day, and ¼-inch per day – were applied to test plots during three different growth periods – the vegetative period that goes to about 950 heat units, the reproductive period that extends to 1,350 heat units, and the maturation period.

The results so far – using numbers from 2013 – showed that higher yields and better water value came from using the higher water rates during the later growth periods, especially during the maturation period.

“The general message is that attempting to build profile water early in the growing season with pivot irrigation reduces water value,” stated Bordovsky. “Water value is much higher when applied later in the season.

“This doesn’t mean we don’t need to take care of cotton plants during the first part of the growing season,” he said. “That plant still needs water, and it’s critical to initiate fruiting sites. But with the wind speeds and high temperatures we normally have early in the growing season, we might not be doing as good a job as we think trying to build that profile.”

Bordovsky’s study is not the only research study that demonstrates the value and profitability of irrigation. A recent study conducted by Texas A&M AgriLife Research, in partnership with the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation, showed that cotton growers who were not using low energy precision application, or LEPA, sprinkler systems could be losing up to $100 per acre in yield.

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