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Water use needs are at a peak for corn

Corn’s water needs peak in July as irrigators fill in where rainfall falls short. Irrigated corn has its highest water need and potential greatest benefit from irrigation during the week of tasseling and the following three weeks. Most irrigation scheduling programs have corn using 120% of a six-inch grass reference evapotranspiration (rET), which translates to a need for as much as 2” per week in corn fields.

Reference evapotranspiration for an average summer day during the last half of July is 0.19 inches per day or 1.3 inches per week. To convert the rET to a crop water use, you need to multiply by a crop coefficient value (Kc). The week a corn crop tassels it will use 120% of the rET or a Kc of 1.2 . That results in about 0.23” a day (1.6” per week) of water use. A cool cloudy week would result in a corn water use of 1.4” and a hot dry week would result in a corn water use of 2.0”.

Indiana producers may use data from their own E.T. gauge station or rET data from Purdue’s PAC center weather stations. Then take that number and multiply by 1.2. Multiply that result by 7 (days) and that equals the estimated corn water use per week

Michigan and Indiana producers in the adjacent counties can have daily rET data sent to them by E-mail or text by signing up for the service at MSU Enviro-Weather website. ( Messages are sent at 5:30 AM each day providing rET data for the previous five days and estimates of projected rET for the following 7 days from any of the networks 87 stations. Estimates of rET can also be found by going to the Enviroweather web site at and following the link to Potential Evapotranspiration and the Water-Use Tool heading.

To make the best use of irrigation water, producers want to try to provide 5 or 6 days’ worth of crop water use per application, typically 1 to 1.25 inches. These larger irrigation applications increase the amount of effective water available to the crop by reducing the water lost by evaporation in the corn canopy and on the residue and soil surface, about a 0.1” inch per application regardless of the amount applied. A producer making two 0.5” applications provides 0.8” of effective water, compared to a producer making a single 1.0” application that provides 0.9” of effective water. Irrigators with center pivots that apply water faster than the soil can infiltrate are forced to use smaller applications (less

By the time that corn reaches tassel emergence, the plant has achieved 100% all of its effective rooting of about 3 feet. A 3-foot deep reservoir of soil moisture can hold as little as 3.0” on sands to as much as 6.0” on loam soils. Our most typical irrigated soils, sandy loams, hold between 3.5” and 4.0” in 3 feet of soil. But even with the low capacity of sandy soils well timed 1.0” -1.25” application rarely result in loss of water out the root zone.

For irrigators that want to avoid using the checkbook system for managing irrigation applications, soil moisture monitoring tool or simple digging to the depth of the wetted front 12 hours after irrigation provides an indication of irrigation need. Ideally at least every other application should wet the soil down to 18” or half the rooting depth. At peak water use corn that is inadequately watered will dry the lower rooting zone to the point that reduces nutrient uptake.

The time of day irrigation water is applied has not been critical.  “We have seen no major advantage or disadvantage irrigating crops either during the night or day”, says Kelley.

“Avoiding afternoon irrigation, making multiple small applications and using pivot drop nozzles are all management practices developed for the arid west and have little to no advantage in irrigating Indiana and Michigan fields.  Applying water when the crop needs it should be the producer’s most important mission.

Visual signs of water stress in corn occur too late to use as a good irrigation scheduling method without lowering yields. The corn plant has a natural defense mechanism that rolls the leaves up to cut the amount of sun light that is captured. During extremely hot days, corn may roll even if it has adequate water.   A good indication of under watering is when corn leaves are still rolled into the early evening hours or, worse yet, into the pre-dawn hours. This symptom represents severe stress and will likely reduce potential yield. Compacted areas or sandier parts of field can be monitored for leaf rolling, providing an early warning of the field's moisture status for the rest of the crop.

Many of the irrigation systems in Indiana and Michigan do not have the pumping capacity to keep up with the peak water use of the crop. That results in the crop drawing down the soil moisture reserves. Irrigation systems that can provide 5 gpm/acre of irrigated land can provide 1” water every 4 days or 0.25”/day if ran continuously. Irrigation systems with less capacity to deliver water, or when crop water use is greater than 0.25”/day, are reliant on the soil moisture reserves to provide soil water or yield loss can occur.

Irrigation applications made prior to the heat of the day can be beneficial to pollinating corn when afternoon temperatures are extremely high. By wetting the canopy and soil surface, temperatures are lowered and the relative humidity is raised, both of which can help the pollination process. The myth of “cold shock” to the crop scares some producers into avoiding irrigation just when it is needed the most.

For more information on irrigation water use and when to irrigate see fact sheet #3 “Irrigation Scheduling tools” at: