Plains farmers battle water shortage

It’s all about the water don’t you know….

It’s all about the water, ain’t no lie.

Without the water we shrivel up and die"

Jimmy Buffett

"Don’t Stop the Carnival"

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — South Plains cotton farmers may not be in immediate danger of shriveling up, but water has become their major production obstacle and biggest production cost. And the situation is getting worse as the Ogallala aquifer continues to decline and pressure from urbanization and industry continue to compete with agricultural use.

Consequently, growers are looking for ways to conserve water or get more production out of what they have.

Walter King, who raises cotton near Brownsville, Texas, says his water availability has declined in just a few years from 500 gallons per minute to 250.

"We probably have less than 250 gallons by the end of a dry growing season," King said recently during a Stoneville Pedigreed Seed company tour. "We’ve declined a lot over the past few years. I have four pivots installed but am only using two, pumping 250 gallons."

He says dry springs often require irrigation to "water the crop up. And I may pre-water to melt clods where I deep break land. A later planting date also may help."

King has already turned to Low Energy Precision Application (LEPA) systems to put water where it’s needed and limit evaporation losses. "I have nozzles placed six inches above the soil," King says. "I broadcast fertilizer, so I like to have the sprinklers where I can keep the bottom of the furrows wet."

He’s considering subsurface drip irrigation. "I like the concept," he says. "LEPA is pretty efficient, but drip will be even more so."

He says new conservation titles in the 2002 farm law may help growers afford to install more efficient irrigation systems.

"If I qualify for EQIP funds, I’ll consider installing some drip," he says. "That’s the best way to make it feasible. I’d sure like some help with the cost."

King says few growers in the area have used drip irrigation on cotton. "But what I’ve seen looks phenomenal."

"Our water situation looks bleak for the future," says Terry County farmer Steve Furlow. "Our water table in the county keeps going down," he says. Frequent droughts over the past few years have added to the decline.

He’s also considering EQIP funds to improve irrigation efficiency, possibly with a drip system. He says the deal may not be as attractive as folks first thought.

"Initially, funding was set as high as 75 percent of the cost," he says. "But demand was so high and so many applications came in, the limit was dropped to 50 percent. Still, that will help."

He stretches 400 gallons per minute with a LEPA system. He uses spray nozzles until he gets a little size on the cotton and then switches to drag hoses.

Ronnie Wallace, in nearby Gaines County, says the summer of ’02 was not particularly good for replacing water in the aquifer. "We had no significant rainfall from March until mid September," he says. "We picked up three-tenths to four-tenths of an inch here and there.

A diversified producer, Wallace says water dictates his crop mix. "Where water is light, I’ll plant cotton and wheat, half and half. With good water, I rotate cotton and peanuts, three years in cotton and one in peanuts."

Yield potential with adequate water hits two-and-a-half bales per acre. Peanuts make 4,500 to 5,000 pounds per acre. "Anything more than 5,000 pounds is extremely good," Wallace says.

He’s running 12 pivots and all except two are LEPA systems. "I’d like to covert those two to LEPA, and I’m in line to trade into LEPA with those two old units."

He plants mostly reduced tillage with a clean strip on top. "I’m changing from 40-inch to 30-inch rows. Research shows that 30-inch rows make more cotton."

He says narrow rows may take more water, "but we’ll get a quicker canopy, which will shade the row sooner and hold moisture better.

" I’ll use 30-inch rows for peanuts, too. I already grow some double-row Spanish peanuts and think 30-inch spaces will do even better."

Water will also dictate seeding rate. "With lighter water, I’ll plant for a 60,000 cotton plant population per acre. With good water, I’ll bump that up to 80,000."

Morris Applewhite, who farms near Idalou, Texas, has a bit more water to work with, up to 800 gallons per minute. He started watering in early June with one inch per week. From early July through late August, he cranked rates up to three inches a week and finished the crop with one inch a week into September.

It was not a cheap program. "We spent about $115 per acre for water," he says. "We use LEPA systems on all our cotton."

Edward Fisher farms near Sudan, Texas, and says his water strategy for 2002 was to apply "all I had." He gets about 600 gallons per minute and watered three times a month, applying about an inch at a time."

He plants minimum-till. "I sow rye in the cotton middles as soon as I get the stalks out. I also apply chemicals when I cut stalks."

The downside to planting a cover crop, says Dennis Flowers, Fisher’s crop consultant, is moisture loss to the rye.

"Rye takes about four inches of moisture," he says. "We try to terminate it before it starts filling heads. And we always hope to get enough winter moisture to make the rye crop."

Fisher has installed drip irrigation in one field and will put in another drip system for next year.

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