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Drip irrigation/GPS project takes off at Clovis Agricultural Science Center

CLOVIS - Declining groundwater levels in the New Mexico High Plains are threatening the sustainability of highly productive irrigated agriculture, which is the foundation for economic stability in the region.



New Mexico State University agronomist Mark Marsalis, left, discusses cotton research during the 2006 field day at the Agricultural Science Center at Clovis. Marsalis is expanding his research to include drip irrigation with corn, sorghum and cotton. (NMSU photo by New Mexico State University agronomist Mark Marsalis, left, discusses cotton research during the 2006 field day at the Agricultural Science Center at Clovis. Marsalis is expanding his research to include drip irrigation with corn, sorghum and cotton. (NMSU Agricultural Communications photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

Agriculture brings in almost $700 million in the two most productive counties in the High Plains of New Mexico: Curry and Roosevelt. Those counties are ranked third and fourth statewide, respectively, in the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service's annual ranking of counties by receipts from all farm commodities.

"With reduced amounts of irrigation water available to producers, it is imperative that maximum water use efficiency be achieved in order for farmers to maintain a level of productivity necessary for continued feed and food supply," said Mark Marsalis, Extension agronomist at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Clovis.

A three-year demonstration project at the Clovis Science Center will display the water and energy-conserving abilities of subsurface drip irrigation and GIS/GPS (geographic information systems/global positioning systems) in cropping practices in the region. The project is part of NMSU's continuing outreach efforts to help educate and improve the lives of people in New Mexico.

"Subsurface drip irrigation has been shown to reduce water usage and losses from cropping systems in various regions of the world," Marsalis said. "It is well-documented that SDI is highly efficient (greater than 95 percent) at supplying water to plants, even more so than Low Energy Precision Application modifications used currently with many center pivot systems to irrigate crops in the area."

SDI systems are efficient because they supply water directly to the root zones of plants, thereby minimizing evaporative and runoff losses from the soil surface, Marsalis said. Therefore, most of the water applied is used for transpiration and other physiological processes in the plant. This is particularly important in arid and semiarid regions, where evaporation can result in significant water loss.

Although highly efficient, SDI use in this area of New Mexico is practically non-existent due to limited information on system operation and application. The goal of this project is to educate producers on installation and management strategies for subsurface drip irrigation, and the applicability and benefits of utilizing information technologies (guidance systems) in conjunction with drip irrigation and in more traditional settings.

"Historically, SDI has been utilized in production of high-value crops such as vegetables and alfalfa," Marsalis said. "In the NMSU project, however, these technologies will be used together in a system for production of corn, sorghum and cotton, typical crops grown in eastern New Mexico, and will be compared with conventional systems of irrigation and management. Producers will be able to see differences between the two different production systems and the benefits associated with drip irrigation and GIS/GPS."

Drip tapes will be set on a typical row spacing (30-inch) and management will be representative of common practices in the area. Water use efficiencies will be estimated for all crops and crops will be evaluated for a best fit into the drip-GIS/GPS system. Differences in system inputs (e.g., water, fertilizers, herbicides) and outputs (e.g., yields, economic returns) will be documented throughout the duration of the project.

"This demonstration has the potential to increase adoption of the resource-conserving technologies and could lead to significant water savings, which may extend groundwater availability for future generations," Marsalis said.

Note: Mark Marsalis is Extension agronomist at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Clovis. He can be contacted at (505) 985-2292, marsalis@nmsu.edu.