Conservation Matters August 2012

The Texas Land, Water and Wildlife Connection

TWRI grant recipient studies water use efficiency of hybrid corn

By Alejandra Arreola-Triana

Drought-tolerant hybrid corn can be irrigated less than nonhybrid corn without sacrificing crop yield, suggests a study by Texas Water Resources Institute (TWRI) research grant recipient Jacob Becker.

Becker has been around corn all his life. The McLean, Ill., native worked with his advisor, West Texas A&M University assistant professor Dr. Brock Blaser, to determine whether drought-tolerant corn hybrids can be watered less and still produce the same yield as their nondrought-tolerant counterparts.

"Water is the number one factor limiting corn production in the Texas High Plains," said Becker, a master's student.

"Texas producers are able to obtain corn yields that rival that of any region in the world," Becker said. These yields, however, would not be possible without water from the Ogallala Aquifer, he said.

The Ogallala is one of the largest aquifers in the world, and while most of the water pumped out is used for agriculture, more and more cities are turning to it to satisfy their water needs. "This will place increased pressure on producers to limit their water use," Becker said. "As the producers' water supply becomes more limited, water use efficiency must be increased to maintain a cropping system that conserves water in the Ogallala.

"The objective of the study was to determine if these varieties could be watered less than nondrought-tolerant hybrids and obtain the same yields," Becker said. His results suggest that drought-tolerant hybrid corn can produce grain even at low irrigation levels. "These are tremendous strides in increasing water use efficiency in agriculture," he said.

Becker said last year's drought hit his research hard. "It probably knocked off the top end of our yields," he said. However, Becker said that the conditions made for an excellent year to do a drought study.

Becker conducted his research on a field using some of the same practices local farmers use, such as pivot irrigation and strip-tillage. "(Farmers) can take our data and use it in their own farm," Becker said. Regional producers and water districts can use the results to establish yield goals with a limited amount of irrigation water, he said.

Research like Becker's gives a glimpse into the future of agriculture in the Texas Panhandle and other arid regions. "Limited-irrigation corn will become a more normal production practice than fully irrigated corn," Becker said. He said it is important to make the public aware that scientists are working to reduce water pumping and increase agricultural yields.

Becker is a recipient of a 2011-2012 TWRI research grant. He will continue his research to include in-season soil moisture monitoring, more varieties of hybrids and dryland corn plots.

The TWRI grant is funded by the U.S. Geological Survey as part of the National Institutes for Water Research annual research program. TWRI is the designated institute for water resources research in Texas.

For more information on Becker's research, visit TWRI Research Grants.

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