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Sugarcane under drip irrigation, a success story

Los Mochis Valley in Sinaloa, Mexico is a semi-arid region with an average of 10 inches of rainfall annually. Under these climate conditions, local agriculture depends fully on irrigation. In this region agriculture is a highly competitive industry. It's also known for the high levels of ag technology due to the large number of vegetable crops, many of which are grown under protected culture. Pressurized irrigation systems, drip irrigation in particular, are quite common in this area, due to the water efficiency and yield improvements associated with drip irrigation systems.


Those were some of the factors leading to the implementation of John Deere Water's T-Tape drip irrigation system at Los Mochis sugar mill. The drip irrigation system that began at an experimental level in 1998, turned into a commercial project one year later. Currently, this operation encompasses 22,500 acres of sugarcane fields. Twenty thousand acres will be harvested this year, out of which 5,000 acres are under drip irrigation.

 

Comparing two co-existing irrigation systems

The original expectations of this drip irrigation project forecasted significant water savings and yield increases of 30 to 50%, a three to four-year payback on the equipment, and five years of life-span for the drip tape ― a duration comparable to that of the crop life cycle (up to four ratoon crops) and three to four cuts.


After over 13 years, John Deere Water's irrigation tape still provides irrigation uniformity and consistent yields due to good management and maintenance of the tape (both of which are essential to the longevity of tape). However, these are not the only expectations that have been widely exceeded after more than a decade. Maintaining several plots with two different irrigation systems: furrow irrigation and drip irrigation, has enabled growers to make interesting data comparisons between both systems.


Los Mochis sugarcane plantation has had an average production increase of 60% to 65%; and even up to a 100% production increase in plots under drip irrigation, and yields ranging from 60 to 100 ton/acre depending on the plantation date, 50 to 70 ton/acre in first ratoon crops and 40 to 50 ton/acre in later stages over 13 years, with 25% less cost per sugarcane ton.*


This increase in production is due to the basic drip irrigation principle of frequent low-volume spot watering. Maintaining moisture at more steady levels than the ones produced by furrow irrigation along with the application of fertilizers according to the stage and real crop needs provides optimal conditions for an extended period of time, resulting into better crop development.

 

Drip irrigation provides optimum growing conditions

Furrow irrigation leaves the soil fully saturated after each irrigation event. As time elapses, the soil moisture drops gradually until reaching the optimal level for the crop to develop its full potential. However, the moisture level continues declining, until more irrigation is needed, creating again the non-ideal water saturation conditions. In fact, out of the thirty day-interval between irrigation events, the crop is subjected to excessive moisture conditions from 6 -12 days and to water stress for another few days thereafter. Instead of growing one inch under ideal conditions, sugarcane will only grow half an inch every day. As a result, a fraction of sugarcane's potential growth is lost every month.


On the other hand, drip irrigation manages moisture consistently, as well as the ability to applying fertilizers through the system according to the specific needs of the crop allowing for the crop to grow to its maximum potential for a longer period.


That said, a crucial feature determining the efficiency of drip irrigation is an accurate measurement of the necessary soil moisture level taken at the right place. Measuring too close or too far away from the drip irrigation tape will provide distorted data.


Another advantage to drip irrigation systems is water savings and the possibility of applying nutrients according to crop requirements, at the right time and the exact rate.

 

Additional efficiencies and final recommendations

Besides the most obvious benefits, drip irrigation offers additional efficiency advantages over other irrigation systems. For instance, the increase in production results in more efficient use of the machine-harvesting time and the distance travelled by the harvester. Furthermore, sugarcane supply at the mill is more consistent, producing less downtime and less fuel consumption.


Not everything can be considered an advantage. Drip irrigation cost per surface area can be higher, mainly due to the energy and pumping power required to pressurize the system. It is also necessary to consider the additional cost of some soluble fertilizers, the need for greater supervision and maintenance and a higher initial investment. However, higher production yields and the benefits linked to increased overall efficiency offset by far the capital investment.


Like with any other commercial systems, we recommend you to conduct a detailed analysis of the cost and resources needed; purchase high-quality materials and equipment according to your crop and geographical location requirements; choose the right design for your system; make sure that your supplier will give you technical assistance and follow strictly the handling and maintenance recommendations provided.


John Deere Water provides the most reliable integrated Ag water management solutions with superior channel partners to growers that want to optimize operations and output.

"After 15 years, John Deere Water's irrigation tape still provides irrigation uniformity and consistent yields due to good management and maintenance of the tape."
Hector Manuel Perez Turner- Hector Manuel Perez TurnerAgricultural Engineer

*Disclaimer: Production results with an irrigation system may vary depending upon a variety of factors, including the following: management and maintenance of the irrigation system, fertilization management, type of crop, weather conditions, type of soil and pest control.

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