Irrigation specialist retires after 40 years with AgriLife Extension

By getting his feet muddy and using a Pepsi bottle in an unorthodox way, Leon New has made a difference in crop production on the High Plains.

For more than 40 years, New has been working to help producers get water to their thirsty crops as economically and efficiently as possible as a Texas AgriLife Extension Service irrigation specialist.

On Aug. 31, he’ll say goodbye to his job, knowing that along the way he’s done his best to understand and meet the needs of irrigation producers, he said.

“I just tried to serve the people,” New said. “I tried to become aware of their problems and figure out as a state-funded agency how we might help them with some kind of solution.”

When New started with AgriLife Extension in Lubbock in 1968, he said producers were primarily row-watering their crops with aluminum pipe that was moved by hand a joint at a time or sprinkler irrigating with draglines that had to be hooked onto a tractor to be moved.

Grain sorghum, wheat, cotton and sugar beets were the crops being irrigated, and it wasn’t unusual for a producer to be putting on 35 to 40 inches of water a season, regardless of the crop, he said.

New said early in his career he began working with producers to adapt alternate-furrow irrigation, which meant sending water down only every other furrow, allowing them to apply the water faster and use less in the process.

“They were usually able to apply two to three more irrigations, but only about 75 percent of the total amount of water,” he said.

Then came skip-row cotton, where cotton was planted in two rows and the third row was skipped, New said. The water was pushed through the skipped row, and this process helped combat disease problems.

New also initiated field tests with growers that showed more cotton could be produced by irrigating between the two planted rows.

Nobody really knew how many inches of water were being applied at the time, he said, so he purchased some water meters through grant funds to determine how much water was actually being applied to the crops. He also began using gypsum blocks to sense soil moisture levels at different depths, a tool that is still being used today.

“We did a lot of field demonstrations to look at reducing the heavy amounts of irrigation, including looking at watering every two, three and four weeks on grain sorghum and sugar beets, and measured tailwater runoff,” he said.

In the 1980s, rising fuel prices prompted New to begin conducting pumping-plant efficiency tests on engines and pumps of producers’ irrigation systems to identify how much fuel was being converted to power, and thus water.

“When I first started, natural gas was 25 cents an mcf (thousand cubic feet), and it had risen to $2 per mcf,” he said. “I tried to help growers identify their inefficient pumps. We tested about 3,000 wells powered with natural gas, diesel and electric motors. This gave us a good database to work with.”

With the pump-plant-efficiency field testing, New said they know it takes approximately 1 mcf (thousand cubic feet) of natural gas, 5.2 gallons of diesel and 70 kilowatt hours of electricity to pump an acre inch of water, with pumping lifts of 350 feet or more.

“This data allows producers to compare, and it has helped them become the efficient irrigators they are today,” he said.

New said it was only a short time later when more center-pivot irrigation systems came on the scene. The original versions were impact sprinklers attached to the overhead main pipeline, and the system operated with 70 to 80 pounds of water pressure and shot water out over the crop 40 feet.

“High and wide, that was the center pivot in the early 80s,” he said.

Eventually the industry developed drop lines from the skeleton of the irrigation system that would bring the water right down to the top of the crop canopy, but it still was under high pressure, New said.

In the early 1980s, Dr. Bill Lyle, a Texas AgriLife Research irrigation specialist at Lubbock, began working with low-energy precision-application (LEPA) irrigation at the research station at Halfway, northwest of Lubbock. He utilized PVC fittings for a prototype water applicator attached to drop lines.

“But we didn’t have a water applicator at the bottom of the drop lines that would spray or bubble the water out,” New said. “So I used a one-liter Pepsi bottle turned upside down to attach to the drop hose.”

The next step was to work with irrigation companies to come up with a water applicator that growers could buy, New said. They all designed devices based on his Pepsi bottle prototype.

New said he began retrofitting single spans of center pivots in growers’ fields to this low-profile water application system in an effort to see if the research would actually save water.

“We had confidence in the system,” he said. “We did 18 different demonstrations with different growers three or four consecutive years in different areas on different crops.”

Corn had become a major crop for the region and this technology was applied there, New said. Because corn was the most sensitive to the lack of water, he said they knew if it worked there, it would work on the other crops.

“I was working with Harold Clark up in Moore County and we had a span if the center pivot equipped with LEPA,” he said. “When I walked out under the last span of the system, my boots got a little muddy. But when I walked out under the adjacent retrofitted span, I sunk above my ankles.

“That’s when I became convinced this system had a lot to offer our growers,” New said.

With acceptance of growers, then it was a matter of getting the manufacturers to take interest, he said. They began to make the redesigned center-pivot systems and were combined with the different water applicator nozzles that were manufactured.

“That’s when we could determine how much less water should be applied,” New said. “We went from applying 7.5 gallons per minute per acre on corn to 5.5 gallons per minute per acre, and from 5 to 3 gallons per minute per acre on cotton.”

There were other changes along the way, including working with low-elevation spray-application irrigation systems that were better designed for getting wheat germinated because it sprayed the water out instead of bubbling it out and with chemigation (application of chemicals through the watering system), he said.

And New also went back to his earlier work and instead of using the 30-inch spacings for the drops, he moved the drop hoses to every other row, thus reducing the cost of the system and the amount of water used.

“That proved up and it is what we use today still,” he said.

New has written many publications on center-pivot irrigation and helped start and conduct the High Plains Irrigation Conference, which ran for 30 consecutive years, and is still held in January in Amarillo.

“One of my big things was to try to serve the people,” he said. “We were especially lucky to have the cooperative attitude of the farmers and the irrigation industry. Everyone worked unselfishly together to accomplish a goal of producing more with less water. And we do.”

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