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Corn under drip irrigation gets new look

It has been used for many years on high value vegetable crops, but is drip irrigation the practical way to grow corn in South Texas? We'll soon find out.

As every grower knows, corn in the Rio Grande Valley is typically flood irrigated, with the reasoning being that a drip irrigation system would not be economically feasible. But farmers may have to reevaluate the situation since the lack of water in the Valley is making it necessary to think out of the box.

With the need to be visionary, Texas Cooperative Extension began an experiment under the leadership of Charles Stichler, agronomist at Uvalde, and Guy Fipps, Extension Engineer at College Station. With the help of farmer Charles Loop and sons of Brownsville, Texas, and the supplies and expertise of T-Systems International and High-Tech Irrigation, a demonstration project of ten acres of corn was planted in February under drip irrigation on Loop's land. An electric pump was hooked up to underground irrigation tape whereby water and fertilizer are emitted to the corn roots in exact amounts.

It has been reported that fertilizer is being utilized effectively and there's been dramatic savings of water. Besides that, a tractor has not been across the land since the corn was planted. There's been no cultivation, no furrows.

Exact amounts of water mean less stress to the plants and better management of diseases. Although the jury is still out, everyone involved assumes that money will be saved on both fertilizer and labor. And a side advantage is that fertilizer will be going directly to the roots, and less will be used, thus not as much runoff will be carried into the environment.

And the crop is looking great!

Dr. Travis Miller, Texas Cooperative Extension agronomist from College Station, says,

“It looks like drip will be successful. The plants are about 18 to 24 inches higher than in furrow irrigated corn, and water use has been cut in half: only about 7 1/4 inches using drip tape, compared to almost 14 inches with furrow irrigation.”

The economics of the situation, though, is what the farmers are concerned about. They all ask, “Can we afford it?”

“It's going to take 10 1/2 bushels per acre to pay for this,” says Miller. “But from what I've seen, we'll even get a higher yield.” But even more important, says Miller, is the effect this could potentially have on the problem of aflatoxin. “Less stress to the plant generally means less disease.” And drip irrigation, with its emission of exact amounts of water, is a great stress reducer. He also feels that it might even be possible to deliver fungicide to the corn roots the same way fertilizer is delivered, which would also reduce the incidents and damage of aflatoxin.

Valley corn growers have been virtually knocked out of the food grade corn business as a result of aflatoxin. “This (drip experiment) could end up being a huge benefit to Valley growers,” says Miller. “If we can control aflatoxin, they'll be back in business again. It could bump the price by 50 cents per bushel. And that would be significant.”

The future for drip irrigation in corn looks promising, yet Miller doesn't want to jump to preliminary conclusions since data won't be analyzed until the corn is harvested. And even that may be too soon. He thinks they'll need a couple of years of study and plenty of comparisons to come to any definite conclusions.

In the meantime, Miller is optimistic enough that he is considering a field study of the same type in the College Station area.

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