As you’ll see in the “Features” section below, some growers in the Northern High Plains of Texas are turning to cotton plantings in hopes of reducing their watering needs and possibly extending the life of the Ogallala aquifer.
Overall, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension reports, cotton uses less water per season and per day, making it slightly more tolerant to droughts that often grip the Southern Plains.
In this region, cotton requires 12-24 inches of water per acre compared to the 24-30 inches per acre for corn. The average corn crop water-use requires approximately 0.35 inches per day at tassel; however, the average daily water use in the Texas High Plains is approximately 0.3-0.35 inches per day for 2 months.
In comparison, the average cotton water-use peaks at approximately 0.28 inches per day, and the daily water use is approximately 0.25-0.28 inches per day for about 40 days, says Jourdan Bell, an agronomist for AgriLife Extension in Amarillo.
While cotton is definitely a water-efficient crop for irrigation, Bell notes that agronomic management is needed to improve overall crop profitability, including decisions about herbicide, fertility, variety, irrigation, plant growth regulators and harvest aids.
One thing not mentioned here, which will surely increase water efficiency, is reducing or eliminating tillage with these new cotton acres. Studies have already shown no-tilled cotton is perfectly viable.
Most growers I’ve seen interviewed say no-tilling and adding cover crops to boost organic matter helps them save water and elongate the effects of irrigation passes that are made.
If new cotton acres in this region are clean-tilled just like many cotton fields to the south of Amarillo, my prediction is you’ll see more erosion, sand piles, weeds and unprofitable crops, as moisture saved by shifting to cotton will be mostly or entirely lost with tillage passes.
I hope AgriLife Extension educators and the cotton industry as a while will do the responsible thing and point out the success seen with no-tilled cotton so growers have a better chance of accomplishing their goals of saving water and making their operations more profitable.