Irrigation testing in Weslaco could help South Texas vegetable growers

WESLACO  –  As water supplies tighten, improved computer technologies could soon eliminate the waste and guesswork of irrigating winter vegetables in South Texas, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientist in Weslaco.

Dr. Juan Enciso, center, is conducting an irrigation experiment to help vegetable growers save water. Planting seeds in the test plot are his technicians, Rafael Lopez, left, and Marino Saldivar. (AgriLife Communications photo by Rod Santa Ana)

Dr. Juan Enciso, center, is conducting an irrigation experiment to help vegetable growers save water. Planting seeds in the test plot are his technicians, Rafael Lopez, left, and Marino Saldivar. (AgriLife Communications photo by Rod Santa Ana)

“There’s not much we can do to increase our water reserves, so we’re always looking for new ways to conserve the dwindling supplies we do have,” said Dr. Juan Enciso, an irrigation engineer at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco.

Enciso and his technicians are busy installing water meters, PVC pipe, drip irrigation tape, soil water sensors and other equipment to monitor water use and growth of winter onions and cabbage, as well as watermelons in the spring.

“We’re setting up two plots, each about a quarter acre in size,” he said. “One will be irrigated with drip irrigation, and the other with tradition flood irrigation, but with a twist. We’re setting up short rows that will be irrigated more frequently with smaller irrigation depths.”

By irrigating shorter rows, Enciso hopes to document water savings by avoiding unnecessarily deep soil percolation and advancing water to the end of the row faster and avoiding runoff.

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“Farmers traditionally use much longer rows than the 350 foot rows in this experiment,” Enciso said. “We hope to quantify the amount of water farmers could save if they planted shorter rows, if they divided their traditional long rows into two or three shorter rows.”

Even more water could be saved because both plots will be managed with an Internet computer program that tells a grower how much water is required by that crop, he said.

“The computer program calculates how much water the crop needs based on readings it gets from a weather station,” he said. “Once a planting date has been entered, the program calculates irrigation times and amounts based on soil water content, temperature, humidity, winds speed, solar radiation and rainfall.”

Part of this experiment is to help farmers determine the practicality of using the computer program and soil water sensors, Enciso said.

“Traditionally, growers have irrigated when they felt their plants were stressed and needed water,” he said. “Hopefully, we can scientifically quantify a reduction in water use while increasing yields for South Texas vegetable farmers using technologies that are now available to us.”

Others involved in this project said such studies are vital to the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Dr. Luis Ribera, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agricultural economist in Weslaco who will determine the economic feasibility of such technology for growers, said keeping farmers competitive is important.

“Specialty crops like fruits and vegetables are very important to the economy of the Lower Rio Grande Valley,” he said. “They account for 20 to 25 percent of the total value of crop production here of almost $900 million annually, so it’s important to keep those crops growing, but water quantity continues to be an issue.”

Ashley Gregory, an AgriLife Extension assistant for water programs, said urbanization of the area adds to growers’ water woes.

“This new project will study ways to conserve water while keeping in mind grower profitability,” she said. “Urban growth will eventually increase water prices for agriculture as well as reduce the amount of land available to agricultural production. We want to help growers be prepared with options to keep up the yields and profitability of these high-value crops while saving water at the same time.”

Dr. Juan Anciso, an AgriLife Extension vegetable specialist in Weslaco who will be evaluating water applications during the experiment, said new technologies offer hope.

“Irrigation studies have been conducted over the years here, but current information is needed to demonstrate how these technologies can conserve water today.”

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