Sprinkler vs. Drip Irrigation for Corn Farming: A Case Study

04. June 2024 | 5 min read

Sprinklers are currently the most widely used irrigation technology in Romania when it comes to corn cultivation. However, increasing water stress and growing energy prices have pushed corn farmers to consider more economical alternatives, with precision irrigation being one of them. We visited an agricultural business in Romania, Lux Com SRL, which applied both irrigation methods to its corn fields last season. Mitran Marian, Agricultural Engineer at Lux Com, agreed to share his observations and feedback.

Sprinkler vs. Drip Irrigation for Corn Farming: A Case Study

Farming Business of Nearly 30 Years 

Lux Com SRL is an agricultural company situated in Calarasi County, Southeast Romania. Specializing in oilseed and grain farming, the business was founded in 1997 and today cultivates more than 8,000 hectares of land.

Corn farming is a significant part of Lux Com's business, with over 300 hectares of maize planted in 2023. While sprinkler irrigation remains the most popular corn irrigation method in Romania, the technology is not fault-free, especially when it comes to comparatively high energy and water consumption. A recent drop in corn prices has made many Romanian farmers look for new technologies to maintain competitiveness. 

Sprinkler vs. Drip Irrigation for Corn Farming: A Case Study
Sprinkler vs. Drip Irrigation for Corn Farming: A Case Study

Drip Irrigation Tested Amid a Major Heatwave

Last year, Lux Com decided to test precision irrigation on a 15-hectare field planted with flour corn. The system was installed in mid-June, allowing plants to develop a deeper root system before irrigation starts. The field was split into five 3-hectare sectors, each watered in turn for a period of one hour.

Mitran Marian, Agricultural Engineer at Lux Com, admits that more efficient water use was a major consideration behind the test, as his country has recently experienced more intense and prolonged droughts:

"Our water supply comes from the [nearby] river. The first advantage in favor of drip over pivot is that a percentage close to 100% reaches the plants, compared to pivot, where we have a margin of evapotranspiration." 

Last summer, Romania experienced an unprecedented heatwave, with temperatures breaching +40° C in shadow, revealing another drawback of sprinklers. In extreme heat, the droplets of water landing on leaves and flowers can burn the plants, affecting their growth and, ultimately, the yields. Marian refers to the phenomenon as 'the magnifying glass effect': 

"As to the pivot, there is a possibility of having burns on very hot days. Temperatures reached over 40 degrees this summer, and we couldn't turn off the pivot irrigation because it would take days to restart. I can't say we've had big losses, but there was no pollination at the top of some plants. With drip irrigation, it doesn’t matter. Even at very high temperatures, you don't have this headache."

Sprinkler vs. Drip Irrigation for Corn Farming: A Case Study
Sprinkler vs. Drip Irrigation for Corn Farming: A Case Study

Comparing the Yields and Profits

As the drip irrigation system was installed on a flour corn field while sprinklers were used to water sweet corn, Marian emphasizes that the yields cannot be compared directly. Nevertheless, he agrees that both methods have paid off compared to non-irrigated crops. 

Due to the heat and extremely low precipitation throughout the summer, the non-irrigated corn fields yielded only ~1 t/ha on average. The yields from the flour corn were 7.5 t/ha, whereas the average sweet corn yields irrigated by sprinklers were ~9 t/ha.  

"Flour corn and sweet corn are different types of maize, and their prices also differ. Last year, the price for flour corn was around 100 Euros per ton higher. In addition, the sprinkler system had higher operating expenses as it's fueled by diesel and requires more water. All factors considered, the drip-irrigated flour corn brought in more profit." 

Due to crop rotation rules and comparatively low corn prices, Lux Com plans to focus on wheat production this season. However, the company expects to return to maize production in the future and is positive about using precision irrigation at a broader scale. 

"While setting up a drip system requires more work compared to pivots, precision irrigation remains a more economical and future-proof option."

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