Charles Schlabs: 60 years of growing more corn with less water

“Corn production has come from 20 bushels to 30 bushels per acre from 1860 through 1930 to 150 bushels per acre today (national average). And around here, it’s being able to get more out of our water at a time when our irrigation water source continues to decline.”

Charles Schlabs has been part of an irrigation evolution. From gushes flowing from tailwater pits that once flooded bar ditches, to hi-tech center pivot nozzles that rarely waste even a drop of water, the Hereford, Texas, grower has seen his water-use efficiency improve nearly every year since 1953.

He has seen corn production hit 200 bushels per acre from irrigation at 4 to 5 gallons of water per minute (GPM) per acre. That compares to 150- to 175-bushel yields from wells with 8 to 10 GPM per acre in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

He has been able to make his farm work, despite a continuous reduction of groundwater sources.

At 80 years old, Schlabs’ desire to learn and improve his ability to grow corn, cotton, sorghum, wheat and an occasional specialty crop never ends.

Anyone who has ever attended a Panhandle or South Plains area crop field day or seminar has likely seen him.

“I want to learn what I can about technology in farming,” Schlabs says. “Without agricultural technology, we would be a starving nation. We couldn’t feed ourselves.

“Corn production has come from 20 bushels to 30 bushels per acre from 1860 through 1930 to 150 bushels per acre today (national average). And around here, it’s being able to get more out of our water at a time when our irrigation water source continues to decline.”

That groundwater source is the Ogallala Aquifer, which feeds irrigation and other water needs in eight Great Plains states. The Ogallala has been the subject of several recent documentaries detailing its reduced water availability.

Schlabs has “irrigated from day 1” — since he began farming in 1953. He has followed the Ogallala’s reduction in water and taken steps to offset it.

“I was in high school when my dad put in our first irrigation well,” he says. “I remember when we used shovels to control water flow. And I remember buying our first irrigation siphon tube.”

He had also measured the depth of water since 1955. It has gone down steadily.

“I noticed the first year we were getting deeper,” Schlabs says. “Our wells were 125 feet deep in 1955. From ’55 to ’65, we lost about 4 feet of the water table every year. Now, we’re losing from 6 inches to 1 foot a year.

“Our wells are down to 250 feet now. It would have been nice if we could have started using better irrigation technology 50 years ago. But there wasn’t much we could do.”

Early on, Schlabs relied mostly on furrow irrigation using pipe and tailwater pits to recirculate water. “We lived and learned back then,” he says. “We would run the tailwater 24 hours a day. Some farmers started adding center pivots in the ‘80s. We installed our first pivots in ’95.

“Some even needed 50 to 60 pounds per square inch (PSI) at the pivot. We didn’t have that. A lot of times we run 10 PSI at the pivot and 5 PSI at the end.”

Schlabs used research data from low energy precise application (LEPA) pioneer Bill Lyle, then a Texas A&M agricultural engineer. “Bill figured it was much more efficient than losing water from high pressure sprinklers.”

The first pivot Schlabs bought had low pressure drop nozzles.  Some were spaced at 60 inches apart early on. He now uses 80-inch spacings on corn planted in a circle in 20-inch rows.

“We apply from 12 inches to 20 inches of irrigation for corn,” he says. “If a pivot has 4 to 5 GPM per pivot acre, we’ll apply 18 to 20 inches of water. But where we have 3 GPM per acre, we’ll apply about 12 inches.”

Depending on rainfall, the 3 GPM pivots generate about 150-bushel yields, compared to about 200 bushels from the 4 to 5 GPM pivots.

“If I put down 12 inches of water, I need 12 to 15 inches of rainfall to make what would be an average crop,” Schlabs says.

He also credits better corn hybrids and better herbicides with helping keep yields higher with less water.

“We use a Lumax (from Syngenta) herbicide program for corn,” he says. “We put it down at planting. Our next operation is harvest. We usually don’t ‘drain’ the tractor but once a year.”

He rotates corn with cotton. Half the center pivot circle is in corn and half in cotton. With reduced irrigation water sources, he concentrates more water on the corn.

“For cotton, we usually plant into corn stubble,” he says. “We apply 2 to 3 inches of water on cotton in the spring. With the corn residue, rain stays where it falls and we get the most out of the irrigation and rainfall. Our cotton yields are 1 to 1.5 bales per acre.”

He usually plants pivot corners in dryland cotton or sorghum, then hopes for rain.

Schlabs has farmed about everything that has had a local market, including potatoes, onions, and other vegetables, when processing sheds were available in the Hereford area. Sugar beets were in the rotation for years.

 “Of all those, I really think we could have kept our sugar beet production if Holly Sugar had stayed here just another year or two,” he says.

“We had solved many of our disease problems and we had good beet research at the Bushland Research Station. They’re still doing beet research there.”

But corn will remain king for Schlabs. And so will making the crop work as long as there’s any Ogallala water available.

“As long as technology continues to advance, we’ll use it to our advantage,” he says. “We have to.”

See more articles from the Southern Corn and Soybean Production Guide!

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