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Drip irrigation yield increase overshadows higher costs

Ed Reynolds admits that drip irrigation might be a bit intimidating at first glance, considering the relatively high cost of installation and the additional expenses he feels necessary to allow the system to perform to capacity.

But the proof, he says, is in the pounds.

“Drip costs about $700 per acre to install,” says Reynolds, who raises cotton near Idalou, Texas. He uses more nitrogen, more plant growth regulators and, some years, even more water.

“But it doesn’t take long to pay for itself,” he says.

Reynolds put in his first system, 30 acres, four years ago. “The year before I put in that first block, I made 20 bales off that 30 acres,” Reynolds says. “The first year with drip, I made 66. The next year I made 88 bales and the last year that block produced 103 bales.”

He’s added more drip, replacing row-water irrigation, in the meantime and now waters 300 acres with subsurface drip systems. He buries the drip tape 12 inches deep and spaces the lines 80 inches apart, every other row on his 40-inch row widths. He expects the system to last from10 to 15 years. He acidizes the system when he first starts watering in the summer and leaves acid in during the winter to keep the lines clean.

“And I flush the system during the growing season.”

The time and investment are paying off.

“With row water, irrigating every other row with gated pipe, I barely had time to get around,” Reynolds says.

“I may use a little more water with drip than I did with row-water, but this is much more efficient. For one thing, I can water later in the season. I can go about 10 days longer with drip irrigation I should have watered a few days longer this year.”

He also argues that cotton doesn’t stress from moisture deficiency as it would with furrow irrigation during drought periods when he couldn’t apply water as timely as he wanted.

He’s also more efficient with nitrogen fertilization.

“I put out about 40 units early and then I trickle it out through the system

as the plants need it. I use more nitrogen than I did with row water.”

He also uses more Pix to “keep plants from making too much stalk.”

He applies 4 ounces at pinhead square. He adds another 8 ounces two weeks later, 12 ounces two weeks after that and 16 ounces in another 14 days. He makes the last application by air.

“I don’t need that last shot on all my acreage,” Reynolds says. “But I need a lot of Pix on drip-irrigated cotton. It’s essential. I didn’t use enough the first year and I had stalks shoulder high. It was hard to harvest.”

Reynolds says the extra investment he makes on his drip cotton may seem excessive until he looks at the added yield. “Production improvement is significant,” he says. “In most cases, yield doubled and in some cases it has tripled.”

He’s found that some varieties adapt better to drip irrigation than others. “I plant mostly FiberMax 960 B2R and some 989 B2R. I also have some DPL 2280 that looks good. We have quite a few varieties that will do well with drip irrigation. I usually select one.”

He likes picker-type cotton for drip acreage. “They yield better and quality is good. But some stripper types are getting close.”

He plants a demonstration plot for Bayer and says an early look at new varieties gives him a heads up on what works under his growing conditions.

He likes Roundup Ready and Liberty Link technology as the base for his weed control program. “I always use a yellow herbicide, banded at planting, and then Roundup over the top. I’m just beginning to use Ignite and I think Roundup Flex looks good, too.”

He says the extended application window with both Roundup Ready Flex and Liberty Link varieties add flexibility to his weed control strategy and give him better options for troublesome weeds such as morningglory.

He says Bollgard 2 also improves efficiency and production. “In the past, worms were not always a significant problem and would not reach application thresholds every year. But they seemed to nickel and dime us every year. They caused some damage and Bollgard 2 seems to limit losses.”

He says scouts often find worms in cotton but then find them dead before they can do any damage. He says success of the boll weevil eradication program and Bollgard cotton means his most troublesome pests now may be aphids.

“I always use Temik at planting and that usually gets me through early squaring.”

Reynolds says harvest prep takes a bit more management and expense with drip irrigation.

“It takes more water to assure adequate penetration because foliage is heavier. Of course a lot of pivot cotton is heavier this year, too.”

Reynolds flew an aerial applicator plane for 25 years and based on his experience tries to get applicators to put on 5 gallons of water with the first harvest aid application, Prep or Finish. “Then, with Cyclone or Gramoxone, they can drop back to 3 gallons.”

Reynolds expects to be through harvest by early December.

He’s raised cotton since 1955, except for 1988 through 1994, when he ran a spraying business.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes,” he says. “Growing cotton is easier now with the chemicals, equipment and technology we have. Roundup Ready made farming a lot easier and Flex will be even better. Bollgard is also a huge asset.”

He says all his cotton acreage is in Bollgard varieties except for his refugia.

“Even with all the improvements, cotton production still depends on Mother Mature,” he says. He’s using drip irrigation to even the odds a bit.

“I think drip improves micronaire a little. It doesn’t change the temperature in the field as a sprinkler or row watering system would and cotton likes it hot. Cotton seems to mature faster under drip irrigation.”

The bottom line though is his bottom line. “With the cost of other inputs going up it’s hard to make cotton work. We may spend a little more with drip irrigation with nitrogen, Pix and other inputs, but we increase yields enough to make it pay.”

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