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Cotton yields jump Tech aid makes every drop count

Burt and Eric Heinrich were impressed enough with the subsurface drip irrigation system they installed with assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to put more in on their own nickel.

Working through the Lubbock Soil and Water Conservation District and the NRCS in Lubbock County, Texas, the Heinrich brothers used funding from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program two of the last five years to upgrade from row water irrigation systems to micro or subsurface drip irrigation on 100 acres.

After managing their first subsurface drip irrigation systems, they wanted to add more drip on more of their irrigated farms. They made additional applications for EQIP, but did not receive the funding. So they decided to install the subsurface drip irrigation at their own cost because the systems had been so successful.

Improvement has been significant. In 2007, their cotton yields ranged from 1,460 pounds to 1,940 pounds per acre. Yields on the subsurface drip irrigated acres topped out on the high end.

“With better management of fertilizers and the elimination of runoff or evaporation, we are accomplishing more than we have in the past using drip irrigation,” Burt Heinrich said.

Currently, they manage 550 acres of subsurface drip irrigation, about a quarter of their total farming acres in the Lubbock area.

Since available irrigation water is their limiting factor, the Heinrichs continually strive to implement the most improved and efficient irrigation systems with precision application.

“Our primary objective is to utilize our irrigation water better with drip irrigation systems,” said Burt Heinrich. “With the irrigation planning and designs being approved through the NRCS, I know our systems are meeting better standards and we are utilizing our water more efficiently.”

Eighty percent of total irrigated acreage in Texas is in the High Plains and South Plains regions. Many producers in those region look to the Natural Resources Conservation Service to help plan irrigation systems that make the most efficient use of their water.

Landowners and managers like Burt and Eric Heinrich have worked with NRCS to plan and install micro or subsurface drip irrigation since 1999.

This year, producers received an estimated $10 million in cost-share assistance through the EQIP program for water conservation practices in the High Plains and South Plains regions. Irrigation water management is just one of the conservation practices funded through the EQIP program, which enables the NRCS to assist private landowners and managers, like the Heinrichs, with water conservation.

A conservation plan takes all the components of an operation into account, merging production, economics and conservation into a workable plan specific to each operation and individual.

Conservation planning options include additional benefits for farm bill program participation. Local work groups for the EQIP will recommend a conservation plan development for EQIP contract ranking. By agreeing to a conservation plan, a producer's contract will be placed as a high priority in the application process for funding.

“As available irrigation water in the region continues to decline, producers have to use their water more efficiently while trying to maximize production,” said Cleon Namken, NRCS irrigation specialist. “Precision application promotes better use of irrigation, which is what the Heinrichs are looking for to maximize water use efficiency.”

With the increased demand for subsurface drip irrigation, NRCS engineers are working to ensure USDA-NRCS standards and specifications for system designs are being met by the subsurface drip irrigation industry.

The Heinrich's drip irrigation system applies irrigation water to the crop below the ground surface at a 14-inch depth in precise amounts. As a result of precision application of irrigation water, the Heinrichs contend that with one good planting rain, they are on their way with drip.

They say drip irrigation offers more flexibility in managing the crop and allows more time for foliar application, growth inhibitors and late season irrigation.

“NRCS systems are designed to meet high levels of uniformity and field efficiency,” Namken said. “When properly managed, micro irrigation can exhibit a yield advantage over other types of irrigation systems due to the crop response to daily irrigation and micro nutrient application.”

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