UArk’s ‘Most Crop Per Drop’ contest encourages growers to try water-saving technology with prizes.
• By Vicky Boyd,
For the past two years, the University of Arkansas has prodded growers of rice, corn and soybeans to try new irrigation technologies they might not otherwise use and to reduce water use smartly through its “Most Crop Per Drop” Contest.
“There’s an incentive now,” says Chris Henry, a University of Arkansas irrigation engineer. “Instead of doing this demonstration where growers are taking all of the risk, there’s something extra they can now get from doing it. There’s a prize, and they have that competitive nature. This gives them bragging rights, and this is bigger than I realized. They’re being recognized for being a good farmer.”
First place in the 2019 rice category was a tote of RiceTec hybrid seed, valued at about $11,000, or the cash equivalent. Second place received $5,000 from M&M Mars. The university plans to again hold the contest during the 2020 season.
Rather than being a straight yield contest, Most Crop per Drop recognizes growers who harvest the highest number of bushels for every inch of water used. The rice category is open to traditional flood as well as row-rice fields.
Growers also receive personal report cards breaking down how well they did and how they compare to other contestants. The feedback is something they typically don’t receive, Henry says.
“Normally you don’t get any feedback about how good a farmer you are, but this really tells you how you’re doing relative to your peers as far as water use,” he says. “When people get that, they get a real feeling for how they’re doing with their irrigation.”
John Allen McGraw took top honors with nearly 208 bushels per acre (corrected to 12% moisture) and a water-use efficiency of 7.2 bushels per acre-inch of water (from rain and irrigation).
Second place went to Joey Massey, who harvested nearly 210 bushels per acre with a water-use efficiency of 4.9 bushels per acre-inch.
The average rice yield among all contestants in 2019 was 190 bushels per acre, with a water-use efficiency of 3.6 bushels per acre-inch. That same season, Arkansas’ average statewide rice yield was 167 bushels per acre. Compared to the four-year Rice
Verification Program average, contestants in 2019 used nearly 5 fewer inches of water.
The contest was sponsored by the Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board, Arkansas Corn & Grain Sorghum Board, RiceTec, Seametrics, Trellis, McCrometer, Irrometer, Delta Plastics, M&M Mars and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
A little nudge
For Star City rice producer McGraw, the contest gave him the extra push he needed to try a new technology.
“I was kind of interested in intermittent irrigation, but the contest was what made me try it out,” he says.
McGraw, who has been using multiple-inlet rice irrigation and PipePlanner hole selection software for years, tried alternate wetting on a field with six levees.
AWD involves applying a flood, then letting it soak into the ground until the water level is about 4 inches below the soil surface before applying more water. McGraw’s contest field was planted to the hybrid Gemini 214 CL.
He practiced AWD in the top three paddies, allowing the water to flow down to maintain a permanent flood in the bottom three. When the top three paddies became dry enough to support him walking out on the soil, he irrigated again.
McGraw harvested ore than 208 bushels per acre, with little variation between the top three levees and the bottom half. He applied 13.4 inches of irrigation and received another 15.4 inches of rainfall for an overall water-use efficiency of 7.2 bushels per acre-inch applied.
Although the yield was within his average on-farm production of at least 200 bushels per acre, the water use was what caught his attention.
In 2018, he estimated he pumped about 11 million gallons of water on the 40-acre contest field. Using AWD in 2019, McGraw saved about $1,000 in pumping costs, or about $24 per acre, on the field.
“This really surprised me,” McGraw says. “It wasn’t actually used on the bottom half of the field. I was just forgetting about the bottom half and not really flooding it. I just flooded the top three levees.”
Although most of his fields are irrigated with surface water or tail water, the contest field is on groundwater.
With dwindling water supplies and a son on the way, McGraw says he believes he has a duty to try to make as efficient use of resources as he can so they’re still available for the next generation.
A learning experience
Joey Massey, who farms near Paragould, entered the 2018 irrigation yield contest but didn’t place. Nevertheless, he took what he learned, made a few changes and took second place in 2019.
“Monitoring of moisture is very important in the efficient use of water,” he says. “Watering when you don’t need to, not watering when you need to, waiting too long to water and watering too long — all of those factors all affect water-use efficiency.”
Massey has worked with Henry for several years on moisture sensors and, more recently, remote systems that allow farmers to monitor soil moisture levels from their smartphone or computer.
Massey’s 2019 entry was a row-rice field planted to Gemini 214 CL. He changed his irrigation timing from the previous season to make more frequent applications but with fewer hours each time.
“One of the things I learned about water use in the rice is it doesn’t require a flood, but it does require a certain level of moisture,” he says. “And you need to be preemptive in starting the water.”
Massey learned that if he waited until the moisture sensor showed the crop needed an irrigation, he fell behind because of the time it took for the water to move from the top of the field to the bottom.
He only had one sensor in the contest field about one-third of the way down the rows in an area that never was flooded.
A sensor reading of 200 equated to a completely dry field whereas a reading of 0 meant complete saturation. In the past, Massey would begin irrigating when the reading hit 35.
“I knew if I waited until that got to 35 at that spot, it could be 45 before I got the water to it, so I started at 30,” he says. Massey didn’t worry as much about having a deep flood on the bottom, either.
He says he made the modification after routinely visiting fields in person and seeing what was occurring.
“That’s why you can’t just go it off the phone,” he says. “That’s why you have to ground truth what the sensor is telling you.”
As Massey continues to convert his traditional flood fields to row rice, he says he plans to put what he learned in the contest to use.