Date of this Version
Transactions of the ASABE Vol. 55(3): 881-894
Irrigated maize is produced on about 3.5 Mha in the U.S. Great Plains and western Corn Belt. Most irrigation water comes from groundwater. Persistent drought and increased competition for water resources threaten long-term viability of groundwater resources, which motivated our research to develop strategies to increase water productivity without noticeable reduction in maize yield. Results from previous research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) experiment stations in 2005 and 2006 found that it was possible to substantially reduce irrigation amounts and increase irrigation water use efficiency (IWUE) and crop water use efficiency (CWUE) (or crop water productivity) with little or no reduction in yield using an irrigation regime that applies less water during growth stages that are less sensitive to water stress. Our hypothesis was that a soil moisture-based irrigation management approach in research fields would give similar results in large productionscale, center-pivot irrigated fields in Nebraska. To test this hypothesis, IWUE, CWUE, and grain yields were compared in extensive on-farm research located at eight locations over two years (16 site-years), representing more than 600 ha of irrigated maize area. In each site-year, two contiguous center-pivot irrigated maize fields with similar topography, soil properties, and crop management practices received different irrigation regimes: one was managed by UNL researchers, and the other was managed by the farmer at each site. Irrigation management in farmer-managed fields relied on the farmers’ traditional visual observations and personal expertise, whereas irrigation timing in the UNL-managed fields was based on pre-determined soil water depletion thresholds measured using soil moisture sensors, as well as crop phenology predicted by a crop simulation model using a combination of real-time (in-season) and historical weather data. The soil moisture-based irrigation regime resulted in greater soil water depletion, which decreased irrigation requirements and enabled more timely irrigation management in the UNL-managed fields in both years (34% and 32% less irrigation application compared with farmer-managed fields in 2007 and 2008, respectively). The average actual crop evapotranspiration (ETC) for the UNL- and farmer-managed fields for all sites in 2007 was 487 and 504 mm, respectively. In 2008, the average UNL and average farmer-managed field had seasonal ETC of 511 and 548 mm, respectively. Thus, when the average of all sites is considered, the UNL-managed fields had 3% and 7% less ETC than the farmer-managed fields in 2007 and 2008, respectively, although the percentage was much higher for some of the farmer-managed fields. In both years, differences in grain yield between the UNL and farmer-managed fields were not statistically significant (p = 0.75). On-farm implementation of irrigation management strategies resulted in a 38% and 30% increase in IWUE in the UNL-managed fields in 2007 and 2008, respectively. On average, the CWUE value for the UNL-managed fields was 4% higher than those in the farmer-managed fields in both years. Reduction in irrigation water withdrawal in UNL-managed fields resulted in $32.00 to $74.10 ha-1 in 2007 and $44.46 to $66.50 ha-1 in 2008 in energy saving and additional net return to the farm income. The results from this study can have significant positive implications in future irrigation management of irrigated maize systems in regions with similar soil and crop management practices.