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Conservation Combination Increases Productivity

Highly efficient irrigation systems and minimum-till practices guide farming success.

story by  Quenna Terry

The Heinrichs have requested technical and financial assistance from NRCS through EQIP.Years of experience has led brothers, Burt and Eric Heinrich, to a new level of cotton farming. The duo has upgraded their operation using micro-subsurface drip irrigation, low pressure center pivot sprinklers, ridge-till and strip-till methods, and the most advanced technology to help conserve natural resources and improve their management.

Heinrichs’ of Lubbock have worked with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to plan and install micro or subsurface drip irrigation since 1999. Working through the Lubbock Soil and Water Conservation District and NRCS, they have received Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding five of the last ten years to upgrade row water irrigation systems to install micro subsurface drip irrigation.

Currently, they manage 1,000 acres of subsurface drip irrigation, about a third of their total farming acres in the Lubbock area. Since 2008, the Heinrich’s increased their subsurface drip irrigation systems by 50 percent.

After managing their first systems of subsurface drip irrigation, they wanted to increase this type of system on more of their irrigated farms. At that time, they made additional applications for Farm Bill funding, but did not receive approval. The Heinrichs made the decision to install additional subsurface drip irrigation systems at their own expense when financial assistance wasn’t available.

Burt Heinrich demonstrates GPS technology installed in their tractors.Utilizing NRCS’ EQIP program in recent years, the brothers installed an additional 80 acres of subsurface drip irrigation, which furthered their efforts to increase irrigation efficiencies and save on fuel and labor.

“With the drip systems, we are using every drop of water without waste and saving about a half-dozen trips to the field and multiple trips driving tractors up and down the rows,” said Burt Heinrich. “We can spoon feed our crops with fertilizer and nutrients in the (drip) tape and save on fuel and labor costs.

“With the irrigation planning and designs being approved through the NRCS, I know our systems are meeting better standards and we are utilizing our water more efficiently.”

With help from NRCS, the Heinrich’s have also utilized conservation planning and technical assistance to help manage their operation more effectively.

A conservation plan takes all of the components of an operation into account, merging production, economics, and conservation into a workable plan specific to each operation and individual.

Furrow diking is an important conservation measure used by the Heinrich brothers.The Heinrichs implemented ridge-tillage methods on 100 percent of their acres and they have incorporated some strip-tillage to help increase soil fertility and improve organic matter. Under the center pivot sprinklers, they plant 20 pounds of wheat as a cover crop to prevent erosion and provide protection to young cotton seedlings.

“We have finally listened to NRCS,” said Burt Heinrich. “The less we disturb the soil, the better. We are more conservation minded than we’ve ever been.”

While Heinrichs are not able to use wheat as a cover crop on their subsurface drip acres due to the lack of pre-planting moisture, they do not list up the beds in their fields any longer and they contend that with one good planting rain, they are on their way with drip.

Eighty percent of the total irrigated acres in Texas are in the High Plains and South Plains regions of the state. Many of the producers in this region look to the NRCS to help them plan high residue cropping systems and highly efficient irrigation systems that help to conserve water.

The Heinrichs use technology and conservation practices that contribute to energy efficiency.“As available irrigation water in the region continues to decline, it is forcing producers to use their water more efficiently while trying to maintain production,” said Greg Sokora, NRCS Zone Engineer for the Texas Panhandle region. “Precision application of irrigation water below the ground surface promotes better use of irrigation water, which is exactly what the Henirichs are looking for to maximize their water use efficiency.”

With the increased demand for subsurface drip irrigation, NRCS engineers are working diligently to ensure USDA-NRCS standards and specifications for system designs are being met by the subsurface drip irrigation industry.

“NRCS irrigation systems are designed to meet high levels of uniformity and field efficiency,” Sokora said. “When properly managed, micro subsurface irrigation systems irrigating cotton can exhibit a yield advantage over other types of irrigation systems due to the crop response to daily irrigation and micro nutrient application.”