Compared to some areas of the Mid-South, the Missouri Bootheel has very good water resources. “We're lucky in the Bootheel that we have all the water we do,” says Earl Vories, USDA-ARS agricultural engineer stationed at the Delta Center in Portageville, Mo.
“In this area, in the past, water quality issues have been tied more to livestock than crops. So there hasn't been a lot that row-crop producers have had to address in that regard.”
But that's about to change, warns Vories. “We're seeing TMDLs (Total Maximum Daily Load) coming in and more will probably be put in place. That means we have to pay more attention to water quality.”
Vories, who began his engineering work in northeast Arkansas before recently moving to Missouri, still has extensive ties further south. In December he told those attending the 2006 Bootheel Irrigation Conference and Tradeshow that the two areas have much in common.
“There's definitely a difference between Stuttgart, Ark., or southeast Arkansas and (the Bootheel). But comparing (Arkansas') Mississippi County and this area of the Bootheel, isn't difficult — there's a lot of water and it's rather high-quality. Both areas are lucky.
“The recent addition of more rice in the Bootheel and northeast Arkansas has certainly played a role in the need to watch TMDLs. The rice acreages have risen very quickly.
“Obviously, more water is used to grow rice than other crops. Some studies I was involved with in Arkansas verification fields looked at estimates on how much water it takes to grow rice. We need those to make sure the numbers we cite are realistic.”
What Vories and colleagues found in studies between 2002 and 2005 is it takes about 30 inches of water annually to grow rice.
Meanwhile, there has been “a lot of work” among researchers looking at other ways to grow rice. Sprinklers, furrow irrigation and even some drip irrigation work has been attempted around the Delta Center.
“With drip irrigation, we've had problems with water plugging up the lines. That's very common with that irrigation technique, whatever crop you're growing.
“With the other two methods — sprinklers and furrow — we never could achieve the yields flooded irrigation provides. So, they aren't an option most farmers are interested in.”
While Vories isn't looking at those irrigation techniques currently, there is some research on them in Arkansas.
“Daniel Stephenson (Arkansas Extension system agronomist, stationed at the Northeast Research and Extension Center in Keiser, Ark.) is looking at furrow-irrigated rice. Last year was his first checking the system.
“Only a few rice growers in Arkansas are using furrow irrigation. Primarily, it's a matter of necessity. It's used in relatively steep fields where if furrows weren't used, the levees would be so close together it would be almost impossible to farm. Often, farmers in that situation use levees on part of the field and then, when they reach the steep area, switch to furrow.”
Vories has also done on-farm studies looking at multiple- or side-inlet irrigation. In side-by-side tests with conventional flooding, “we found that producers used 24 percent less water with the multiple-inlet technique. And it didn't cost the farmers any yield.
“However, on those studies, we weren't checking water quality. So we began some work in the L'Anguille River watershed. That work is in conjunction with Phil Tacker (Arkansas Extension engineer).
“Phil and I began the study right before I left Arkansas. It'll soon wrap up. We're compiling the numbers and we'll try and figure out exactly what they mean.
(Editor's note: for more on the L'Anguille River project, see http://deltafarmpress.com/mag/farming_arkansas_languille_river/index.html)
Last January, Bootheel researchers began several studies on the series of ditches that drain the region. They're concentrating on collecting samples on Highway 162 between Portageville and Gideon.
“Four of the ditches run very close together but drain very different areas. Several bring water in from far to the north. Others bring water from adjacent fields.”
Since the water comes from such diverse areas, if researchers find something of interest it should be easier to trace and explain.
“If a problem showed up in a ditch with water coming from an area too far north to grow rice, obviously it isn't a rice-related problem — same thing with cotton. It really seems like a good study opportunity.”
Researchers sampled the ditches throughout the spring “just looking to see what's happening. Is there a problem? Could one develop?
“From January through March, we only saw low levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. We'll begin collecting samples again in 2007 and look in more detail. We'll also be following the situation year-round instead of just during the spring.
“For example, we'll take samples in the fall to see if there are any defoliants in the water. Another time, we may look for fungicides.”
Part of the need for this relates to the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico (for more information, see http://deltafarmpress.com/mag/farming_researchers_probe_gulfs/index.html). Much of the problem is supposedly related to agricultural run-off. These ditches eventually empty into the Mississippi River and then the Gulf, so we need to see if, or how much, we might be contributing to the hypoxic area.”
Currently, much of the research into run-off is focused on the Midwest.
“But our water ends up in the Gulf, too, so eventually they'll be checking the Mid-South. We need to be ready when that happens. That seems the wise course.”
Vories insists that “everyone know we're not trying to sneak in and create problems that aren't there. We're working with farmers and area water use groups to make sure they know what we're up to. They certainly know water quality is important.”
Another aspect of Vories' research involves precision agriculture. The Missouri work first began in Columbia, Mo., and also included other states.
“They've got a spraying machine that has sensors on the front. It measures the corn canopy and has applicators in the back for variable-rate nitrogen application.
“It's kind of like what's going on with the In-Time company on defoliation and Pix and the like. In this case, though, it involves nitrogen.”
Instead of taking a picture and then working up a prescription, the machine simply writes the prescription as it moves through the field.
“The tie to water quality is if we can apply only what the crop needs, there shouldn't be extra running off.”
In working with the spraying and prescription technology, cotton is also on the agenda.
“Obviously, cotton is a bigger crop in the Bootheel than corn. This year was the first year we began studying how the technology will work in cotton.”