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Drip on maize: Measure and manage for more

In Southern Africa, irrigating maize and its rotation crops with drip irrigation is not yet a common practice. However, checking in with our counterparts at Netafim USA, it is easy to get excited about the potential impact of drip irrigation in the Southern African grain industry.

According to Netafim USA market segment leader for maize, soybean and hemp, Jim Hunt, drip irrigation can be implemented in many different circumstances for a massive positive impact on efficiency and yield. ‘The easy wins are often on fields with lower quality soil and where decent quality water is easily available.

If you have these circumstances on your farm, you should be considering drip irrigation. The potential impact is, however, in no way limited to these farms.’

Tim Wolf, agronomist at Netafim USA, explains that they will consider water availability, soil type and other factors to determine how drip irrigation can fi t into an operation. ‘Another important factor in success will be the producer’s commitment to maximising the impact of the system. Fact is, if you use drip irrigation to its full potential and you are finely tuned into the needs of the plants, efficiency and yield will increase and return on investment will be rapid.’

The team is often approached by producers who have hit a yield barrier. The producer needs to get more from his land and resources, cannot expand his land investment and has done all he can to maximise output. ‘Our recommended solution will be drip irrigation and fine management of the drip system.’

Marike Brits from Netafim South Africa chats to Jim Hunt and Tim Wolf on the Teams platform about their experiences with drip irrigation on maize.

Drip as a delivery system

To yield the maximum potential of drip irrigation, we must look at drip not only as an irrigation system, but rather a fertigation system or total delivery system. ‘Farmers often ask us what they would need the system for in a high rainfall year. The answer is precise nutrient application and fine-tuned crop management,’ says Jim.

The benefits of delivering nutrients through drip irrigation include:

  • Delivering nutrients well-timed throughout the season.
  • Precise delivery of nutrients to the root zone.
  • Lower occurrence of fertiliser leeching.
  • The ability to adapt the fertiliser program during the season when necessary.
  • Daily access to the plant’s root zone when needed.
  • A wider range of nutrients can be delivered through drip compared to other irrigation systems.

‘Many studies prove the impact of well-timed and structured nutrient application. Understanding when the crop needs which nutrients and delivering those nutrients at exactly the right time is key,’ says Tim. It is furthermore necessary to know how your crop is doing throughout the season. ‘Do tissue sampling, monitor soil moisture and adjust the irrigation and fertigation plan accordingly.’

Jim explains that the exact management approach will differ from farm to farm, and even from field to field. ‘Any approach will however boil down to keeping the soil profile as full as possible at the beginning of the season and throughout the season, as well as delivering the necessary nutrients throughout the season just ahead of when the plants need it.’

The water used by the plant is replaced daily. This allows the producer to maintain the perfect air-water balance in the soil to create a better growing environment. Being able to keep all the necessary nutrients in the plant at a balanced amount is key to high yield and high efficiency.

Better management

‘What I have learned about crop management through drip irrigation, has made me a better irrigator and fertigator – even with my pivots.’ The team at Netafim USA very often receives this comment as feedback.

‘Many of our customers who adopt drip, already use pivot irrigation. They implement drip irrigation on lower producing fi elds, or fields where the shape and topography do not allow for pivot irrigation. The adoption of drip tunes them into a higher level of management which helps them out in the rest of their operation,’ says Jim.

Of course, agronomic support and training form a massive part of the success of drip irrigation on these farms. Across the globe, the Netafim team believes that it is not only about the installation, but also offering agronomic and technical support and training. The Netafim field support model creates the opportunity to help our producers become even better at what they do and pay better attention to what the plants need. ‘These farmers are making a significant investment in our systems and they deserve our support in making the system work for them,’ says Jim.

‘The better drip is managed and the greater the effort towards measuring, the greater the effect of the drip irrigation system will be. We believe the effort and cost of these activities are massively outweighed by the beneficial impact of the information gained.’

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