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New Mexico State University

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NMSU Scientist Studies Latest Drip Irrigation Technology

LAS CRUCES -- Drip. Drip. Drip. Sometimes changes in agriculture come just a drop of water at a time.


Robert Flynn, an agronomist with New Mexico State University's Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, is studying the latest technology in drip irrigation.

Traditionally, drip irrigation tape has been used for high-value crops like vegetables. The flat, black plastic tape is either placed on the surface next to the crop row or buried just below the surface and then taken up at the end of each year. This makes for an expensive and time-consuming operation. But times are changing.

"Recent revolutions in drip tape include a thicker wall and an innovative water release mechanism that allows what's known as turbulent flow," said Flynn, who is stationed at NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Artesia.

Turbulent flow, which allows water to travel a zigzag path before being emitted, keeps the tape from clogging with soil. The improved tape can be buried deeper in the soil and left for as many as 10 to 15 years.

Flynn is studying whether the tape will be a wise alternative for alfalfa and cotton growers in the Pecos Valley and Carlsbad area. They typically use side roll sprinklers or flood irrigation.

"The advantages of drip irrigation include more efficient use of water," Flynn said. "With the tape, you are eliminating the evaporation that occurs with the other irrigation systems."

With flood irrigation or side roll systems, only 60 to 70 percent of the water ends up where it was intended. "With drip tape, you are improving your water use efficiency into the 90-percent range. That means better water use by the plants," he said.

Better use of water is especially critical for New Mexico's large alfalfa crop, planted on 25,500 acres annually. "If we can save water on alfalfa, then we are making a big impact on water conservation efforts in the state," Flynn said.

Two other advantages of drip irrigation also can make farming operations more efficient. "If you have the tape buried and you keep the soil surface dry, you will not germinate as many weed seeds," Flynn explained.

Also, fertilizers that run through the drip irrigation system end up close to the plants' root zone for increased efficiency. "Farmers might be able to reduce their fertilizer costs with fewer and better timing of applications," he said.

In his research, Flynn is trying to find the best spacing and depth for the tape. "This season, the best alfalfa crop was grown on a high-low combination - one tape was buried deep and another one was shallow," Flynn said. "What we're hoping is that if it does rain, we can use the top system to keep the water moving down. We also think we can keep the lower tape running when we are moving equipment over the top of the crop."

Flynn said economics is an important factor in this study. "In our analysis, we'll compare the cost of installing the tape versus the output in the amount of water saved and any fertilizer saved," he said. "This is an ongoing study to look at the returns to producers."

Flynn said producers are welcome to stop by the science center at 67 East Four Dinkus Road, six miles south of Artesia, to see how the drip tape system works for alfalfa and row crops.