For the most part, Mike Tyler is blessed with fairly strong water resources on his cotton, peanut and wheat operation, which stretches over Dawson, Gaines and Andrews counties out in West Texas.

But Tyler operates a few farms with limited water and says even his good wells have shown slight declines since he started irrigating in 1990. Consequently, he's doing everything he knows to squeeze as much production as possible out of every drop of water.

He's also squeezing a lot of lint out of his cotton land, reaching four and five bales per acre on some irrigated fields.

He's installed or converted center pivot irrigation systems to get 80-inch spacing between nozzles, which he places just 36 inches off the ground. He uses wobbler nozzles that allow him to adjust spray pattern according to crop stage. He waters half circles or concentrates water normally used for two pivots onto one. He rotates irrigation sites and he rotates crops.

Reduced tillage practices, he says, also helps hold water on the fields.

Tyler says his irrigation systems are based on a LEPA (Low Energy Precision Application) system but instead of using drag hoses or socks and furrow dikes, he prefers spray application with nozzles about three feet off the ground.

“I tried the drag hoses at first but the spray nozzles just seem to do a better job for me,” Tyler says.

“Mike's system would be considered LPIC (Low Pressure In Canopy),” says Billy Finch, district conservationist, USDA-NRCS, in Lamesa. “This area does not lend itself to a true LEPA system. LEPA works better a little further north, where slope is 1 percent or less. We're a bit more rolling in this area (about 60 miles south of Lubbock).”

“I like the spray nozzles set low,” Tyler says. “I use quad-four heads with four different settings.” He uses a fine mist early to germinate seed. “I don't get any soil disruption with the mist,” he says. “Later, when the canopy develops, I switch to a more coarse spray. Getting those nozzles low is a key, he says. “That's where water efficiency comes from.”

Tyler says he loses almost no water to evaporation from the system, especially after the crop canopy forms and he's spraying inside the plant rows.

He's watering about 3,000 acres of cotton and 1,000 acres of peanuts. He concentrates peanut production on his best water sites. A peanut, wheat and cotton rotation works best but in some fields water is not heavy enough to grow peanuts, so he plants cotton, follows harvest with wheat for grain and leaves the field fallow during the summer. Usually, he'll plant a half circle of cotton with the other half fallowed and in wheat stubble. He has some large fields with two pivots where he'll idle one pivot and concentrate all the water on the other.

“I could water both segments and make maybe a bale and a half of cotton,” Tyler says. “Or I can concentrate all the water in one circle and make four or five bales per acre and use less water.”

He says a LEPA or LPIC system needs a water resource of at least four gallons per minute and five to six gallons per minute would be ideal.

“But even where I have five or six gallons per minute, I still use the efficient technology,” he says. “With good water, I apply it as efficiently as possible.”

He says in some fields he gets as little as three gallons per minute. “I used to apply that water just to irrigate the crop up,” he says, “but I'm converting most of those fields to dryland production.”

He says water quality also suffers in those light water areas.

Tyler says most farmers in the area have converted to some sort of water-saving system. “I'd guess that 95 percent of the irrigation systems in the area are using a LEPA, LPIC, or LESA (Low Elevation Spray Application, which can be set higher than LPIC). I rarely see impact nozzles.”

“Most of our farmers are using efficient irrigation technology,” Finch says, “but quite a few systems still need work.”

Tyler says his system is almost as efficient as subsurface drip irrigation. “And my yields have been comparable to some of the best drip production I've seen.”

Irrigation timing also makes a difference. By concentrating water resources Tyler can apply one and one-half inches of water on most fields in four days. “I try to shut the system down on weekends and start up again on Monday. I can also shut down a day or two for repairs without stressing the crop.”

He says the irrigation system is an important facet of his overall water management system but is only part of the equation.

“Crop rotation plays a huge role,” he says. Alternating wheat and cotton, for instance, allows Tyler to concentrate water on a smaller acreage and at different times of the year. He's also convinced that rotation makes a big difference in yield potential. “Big yields, four and five bales per acre, always come on rotated ground,” he said. “I can't sustain those yields without rotation. On fields where water is OK, I like to get peanuts on every fourth year.”

He says wheat for grain makes from 30 bushels to 60 bushels per acre. “And I want to make certain I get enough straw for cover. I control weeds with chemicals and plant cotton and peanuts back into the stubble. I may use Roundup in August to take out summer weeds.”

He also plants wheat just for a winter cover crop and to protect the crop against sand and hail early in the season.

Tyler follows a reduced tillage system on almost all of his acreage. Breaking land is rare and he believes cutting out tillage operations and using old crop residue and cover crops adds a significant amount of organic matter to the soil.

“The soil is more porous and holds moisture better,” he says. On acreage he's not planting grain for harvest, he sows wheat in the row middles, four rows in each, for a cover crop.

“I terminate the cover, usually in April, and plant cotton or peanuts in the old row. I've planted in the same row for five years with no negative effect on yields. I also follow a controlled traffic pattern, so I don't get compaction in the planting zone.”

Tyler coulters in fertilizer but “does not rip the soil.”

He says the four rows of wheat make a big difference in holding the soil. “One year we had a field with just two rows of wheat in the middles,” he says. “We had a heavy rain after the wheat was up and on the field with just two rows we could see soil washing out of the field and into the road. Where we had four rows, we saw no erosion.”

He's also flown over the area and noticed a graphic difference between fields with reduced tillage and conventional acreage.

“On conventional-tilled ground we could see washouts, playa lakes and in some cases standing water. In reduced till fields, we saw none of that.”

Tyler says land with a good cover crop and good organic matter will hold moisture from most High Plains rains. “We won't see much loss from a heavy two-inch rain,” he says.

He admits that making a wheat crop, especially one to be terminated, takes some moisture that could be saved for cotton or peanuts. “If we ever get back to a more normal rainfall pattern, we'll make up what we use on wheat with spring rains,” he says. “We water wheat when necessary and that may take water away from summer crops.”

But he also insists that in the long run the advantages the cover crop offers with increased organic matter and erosion prevention will far outweigh any water use.

He says a cover crop provides some additional insurance for seedling cotton and peanuts. “With cotton, we're sometimes investing $45 to $50 per acre just for seed. I can't imagine having that in the field without a cover crop to protect it.”

Tyler uses Roundup Ready varieties on almost all cotton acreage and selects stacked gene varieties for irrigated fields. “We use some non-Bt cotton for refuge on dryland,” he says. He intends to use some LibertyLink cotton in 2004.

He says the combination of reduced pesticide use, better water and soil management and fewer trips across the land has improved wildlife habitat around and in his fields.

“I saw quail living in my cotton fields all summer,” he says.

“Mike's cropping system has done a lot for conservation,” Finch says. “He's improving his land, saving water, saving soil and improving tilth. And he's making four and five bale cotton.”

“We have to take care of our resources,” Tyler says.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com