Farming on the fringe: Shallow groundwater dynamics and irrigation scheduling for maize and wheat in Bangladesh's coastal delta

Schulthess, Urs; Ahmed, Zia Uddin; Aravindakshan, Sreejith; Rokon, Golam Morshed; Alanuzzaman Kurishi, A.S.M.; Krupnik, Timothy J.


Further efforts are needed to combat poverty and agricultural productivity problems in the delta region of Bangladesh. Sustainable intensification of crop production through irrigation and production of cash crops such as maize and wheat might be a promising option to increase income and diversify food production. Only limited research has however been conducted on the potential of using surface water from canals as an irrigation source for maize and wheat production in the delta region. To better understand the contribution of shallow groundwater to crop production and number of irrigations needed for maize and wheat in this unique coastal environment, we conducted multi-locational trials on farmers' fields over three rabi seasons. In addition to soil moisture and salinity, we recorded the depth and salinity of the shallow water table throughout these experiments. Maize in particular requires considerable capital investment for seeds, fertilizer, irrigation and labor. Although farmers express wide interest in maize – which can be sold as a profitable cash crop into Bangladesh's expanding poultry feed industry – many of them are reluctant to invest in fertilizer because of the high entry costs. We therefore also investigated the profitability of growing maize under low and high (recommended) fertilizer regimens. Volumetric soil moisture at sowing and during the grain filling phase or at maturity indicated that there is ample supply of water in the profile. Most measurements were above the drained upper limit (DUL). We attributed this to the generally shallow water table depths, which never exceeded 2.75 m at any location, but generally stayed between 1–2 m depth throughout the season. The region's soil texture classes (clay loams, silt loams and silty clay loams) are all conducive for capillary rise of water into the rooting zone. Consequently, irrigation had a significant effect on maize yield in the driest winter only, whereas for wheat, it had no effect. The key for a successful maize and wheat production in the delta region of Bangladesh is to ensure a good crop establishment, which can be achieved with a starter and an additional irrigation at crown root initiation for wheat and at V6-8 for maize. Maize however is not always profitable. Compared to low fertilizer rates, higher rates reduced losses in low yielding site-years and increased profits in high-yielding site years. This indicates that it is advisable for farmers not to reduce fertilizer rates. Low-risk financial credit with rationally structured interest rates that allow farmers to invest in maize could potentially offset these constraints.