Irrigation to help get the crop started

Irrigators have the advantage of being able to apply water to aid germination, emergence, and incorporate herbicides and nutrients. If rainfall is short, irrigation can prevent early season drought.

Irrigator in a field.
A typical cover crop can use 1.5 inches of water per week in late May. If not replaced by timely rains or irrigation, it can be a rough start for the season. Photo by Lyndon Kelley, MSU Extension.

Aggressive cover crop growth and sometimes the lack of timely spring rain may leave fields lacking moisture for optimum planting or seedling germination. Achieving the maximum uniform germination and emergence can often be improved through proper early-season water management. Irrigating fields prior to or just after planting can keep the planter moving and still meet the “plant into moisture” requirement if rainfall is lacking in your area.

Late spring tillage and the delays in killing cover crops are two reasons we see drier than normal planting conditions in some fields. Late spring planting of some seed and vegetable crops may result in a greater need for early-season irrigation for developing crops as we enter into the typical drier weather of summer.

In sandy loam soils irrigation water applied at 0.5 to 0.75 inch will moisten dry soil down to 6 inches to replace water lost to tillage or a cover crop. An inch of irrigation will often be needed in a field that has not received rainfall since the cover crop was destroyed. Heavier soil will take a slightly larger application to wet soil down to the 6-inch level. Monitoring newly emerged crops that were “irrigated up” is essential. It is important to water enough to keep roots growing down into the moisture. In most years, rainfall is plentiful enough to replenish water lost to tillage or a cover crop, but a dry layer 6 to 8 inches deep can greatly hinder crop development and needs to be replenished by rain or irrigation.

Early-season irrigation can be the cause of and solution to soil crusting and emergence problems. Depending on soil type, crop residue and irrigation application equipment, early-season irrigation can create some soil crusting which can be accelerated by rapid surface drying. Small applications of water 0.2 to 0.3 inch may help to allow emergence of seed through the crust.

Planting after harvested forage like wheat hay or cereal rye silage has the double crop advantage, but rainfall or irrigation is required to replace the depleted soil moisture. Newly emerged corn and soybeans use less than 0.5-inch water per week, but many annuals like wheat and rye will dry the soil to depth of 2-3 feet by the time of forage harvest, leaving the crop dependent on timely rain or irrigation. Unless the forecast promises a significant chance of rain, 1 to 1.5 inches of irrigation is needed to create the moist soil crops need to successfully develop.

Many herbicide options can be assisted by a timely rain or irrigation. Applications of 0.3 to 0.5 inch of water will activate soil-applied herbicides if rainfall does not occur within two days after herbicide application. Many soil-applied herbicide labels contain information on improving effectiveness by timely rains or irrigation.

Irrigating to activate herbicides can also create the problem of different levels of weed control between the dry corners and the irrigated portion of the field. Timely and directed scouting for weeds in dry corners will be needed later in the season.

Early-season irrigation can be more accurately scheduled from monitoring soil moisture in the root zone rather than using a checkbook irrigation scheduling system for newly emerged crops. Later in the season, checkbook irrigation scheduling will show its advantages over scheduling by soil moisture in the root zone alone. To learn more about checkbook irrigation scheduling, see the Soil Water Balance Sheet and Irrigation Scheduling Tools fact sheet by Michigan State University Extension and Purdue Extension.

Double cropping and late planting of corn or soybeans after the cutting of forages are options that are often limited to irrigated fields. The first or spring crop will often deplete the soil moisture reserves resulting in the need for irrigation to germinate the second crop. In some situations, irrigation before planting the second crop can aid in seedbed formation. These practices in June and early July are dependent on timely rainfall or irrigation rather than the soil moisture reserves that spring planted crops draw from.

Delayed planting and slow root growth may increase the need for monitoring soil moisture and early-season irrigation. A soil moisture sensor below the developing roots is a good indication of the need for early-season irrigation. More detailed information on soil moisture sensors can be found in MSU Extension bulletin E3443, “Improving Irrigation Water Use Efficiency: Using Soil Moisture Sensor.” Soil below the roots should still be able to form and hold a ball when squeezed if adequate moisture is present. The USDA offers an easy-to-use guide on the hand feel method of soil moisture monitoring, “Estimating Soil Moisture by Feel and Appearance.”

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