While corn and soybean producers have been finding ways to get water to crops long before the summer of 2012, the drought may have been something of a wakeup call. The harsh conditions decimated yields for many without a back-up water source. And they seemed to add momentum to an irrigation adoption trend.
Center pivot irrigation of corn and soybeans is already very widespread in the Plains states, particularly with growers in Nebraska, Colorado, the Dakotas, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, reports Rich Panowicz, vice president of North American Sales at Valley Irrigation. “Now we’re seeing more interest to the east, in states that would be considered more non-traditional irrigation states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Tennessee and Missouri,” he says.
Kirk Biddle, national sales director, irrigation, at Lindsay Corp., credits high commodity prices, in part, for the growth. Indeed, even in dryland areas where rainfall may be fine most years, irrigation can be an insurance policy in a time when growers are investing so much in crops. “They are looking at center pivot irrigation as a way to mitigate risk and have another insurance policy in place for their crops,” says Biddle.
In addition, old, inefficient flood irrigation systems are being replaced rapidly by new, highly efficient center pivots, he notes. The savings in water are huge and have a direct impact on the growers’ bottom lines.
Efficient irrigation will be even more vital in the future. While states vary in how much surface and ground water use is controlled — and by whom — many growers believe the situation will become more restrictive. They know they will face ever-increasing pressure to use less water to produce more food on shrinking farmland acres.
“Water is going to become much more of a competitive issue in terms of who gets what,” says Bill Kranz, associate professor and irrigation specialist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). “If you’re a diehard farmer, you view that as a bad thing, because priority is given to domestic uses so farmers may lose out in some places.” In fact, Biddle feels that growers are on the front lines of efficient water use and curtailments when they occur.
Irrigation is simply good resource conservation strategy. “Center pivots allow farmers to apply water more precisely, resulting in less water applied, reduced runoff and less soil erosion,” Panowicz says.
In just the past few years, irrigation manufacturers have developed some vital new technologies to fine-tune irrigation and save growers money, water, energy and labor.
Soil moisture sensors now can provide real-time soil water content information. For instance, the Valley SoilPro 1200 is a probe buried up to 48 inches into the ground, with soil moisture sensors every four inches along its vertical column. These capacitance sensors send out frequency signals every 15 minutes, communicating the moisture and salinity levels at each depth to producers via cell phone or other technology. The farmer can then decide if it’s time to irrigate.
Growers can now also control equipment remotely. For example, Lindsay Irrigation’s FieldNET wireless irrigation system allows growers to monitor and control their pivots, pumps and other irrigation plug-and-play add-ons from virtually anywhere in the world.
Jack Sailer, a Carmi, IL, corn and soybean grower swears by his system that allows remote access to nearly 4,000 acres of irrigated land. Though he’s a veteran — he began using center pivots back in 1996 — he has used Valley Irrigation’s BaseStation for about four years now.
“It saves a lot of gas with the way it monitors and checks on the pivots,” says Sailer. He admits the irrigation can be a lot of work (“it’s like taking care of a 6-month old child”), so the station is a huge help. “It also allows you to keep better records and do a better job irrigating,” he adds.
If growers want to tailor water application on a basic level, they can control the speed of the center pivot arms moving across a field, to increase or decrease the amount of water applied in different areas.
On a more complex level, the technology can control banks of sprinklers, turning on and off sets of one to 20 sprinklers at a time. One Valley product offers 5,000 management zones, with each zone along the pipeline being controlled independently. A unique prescription is written for each machine based on yield, soil and topography maps, as well as other data, to apply a precise amount of water in each zone.
Valley VRI Zone Control is custom designed to a grower’s specifications. Units sold from the mid-1990s on can be retrofitted with it.
Variable-rate irrigation is beginning to make a splash in some areas of the Midwest and down into Texas.
“Right now we’ve got the technology to apply the water in a very precise manner,” says UNL’s Kranz. “What we don’t have are very detailed recommendations on where to monitor the soil water content when different amounts of water are applied to different areas of the field. Something as simple as when do you need to start irrigating can be a challenge, for instance.” He likens the situation to the fertilizer industry some 15 years ago, when applicators had the capability to put product down in a very precise way, but didn’t necessarily have the reasons on why to do it. “That’s come over time and that’s why researchers will be helping to develop answers.”
Precision irrigation recommendations are actually extending to seed choice. Lindsay recently collaborated with Syngenta to launch the Water+ Intelligent Irrigation Platform this year. “By combining cutting-edge Lindsay irrigation expertise with top-performing Syngenta seed genetics, traits and crop protection inputs, growers gain unprecedented control of their irrigated corn production, growing more corn with less water,” says Biddle.
He reports that through this integrated approach – which continues to expand in the irrigated Corn Belt regions of eastern Colorado, Nebraska and western Kansas – farmers have been able to increase their corn yields while reducing irrigation amounts by 25%.
A Drive To Drip
Data from the 2008 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey, the latest data available, showed center pivot use grew almost 30% from 1979 — to make up 46.7% of irrigated land in the U.S., but drip/low flow systems increased as well, to water 6% of total irrigated land. (Flood and gravity methods irrigation methods dropped by 37%.) In 2014, Ze’ev Barylka, director of ag sales with Netafim USA, says demand for drip irrigation is quite strong, due to drip’s advantages in terms of water and fertilizer savings. “Our Crop Management Technology “CMT” package offers growers not only monitoring and data sensing, but also remote control of the entire drip system,” he says.
Though formerly reserved for high value crops such as fruits, vegetables and rice, drip is making its way to row crops throughout the country, including the Midwest. UNL’s Kranz says growth in his region and to the West “is not a whirlwind by any means,” but growers are consistently installing additional acres, particularly in fields that are odd-shaped and furrow-irrigated.
Subsurface drip lines are placed 14 to 16 inches deep with 60 inches between them — so essentially two rows have access to one drip line. Along the lines themselves, emitters are spaced 18 to 24 inches apart. Once lines are installed and equipment maintained well, not much needs to be replaced on them. In addition, they’re out of the wind and weather.
Kranz says a major benefit from drip is that plants don’t have to work quite so hard to remove water from the soil, it’s readily available, applied frequently.
Kranz’s colleague Suat Irmak, professor of biological systems engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has done research that suggests that applying water once a day, as opposed to every three days, makes quite a difference in plant health and bumps up yields. Labor costs are greatly reduced with drip, says Nebraska grower Kurt Torell, who now irrigates 600 of his 3,400 acres with it — with plans to convert more. He’s found that because the soil surface actually stays dry, weeds don’t germinate like they do with center pivot and flood irritation. He’s seen real savings in his weed control program.
Kansas grower Norman Schmidt says drip is a great answer for corner acreage — or any land — that otherwise couldn’t be reached with pivots. He believes the 30 acres of such a dryland corner field that he leases would yield phenomenally with drip. He’d done the math on what that plot could be making with strong corn prices.
Drip has its challenges. Kranz places the cost of installation somewhere around $1,500 an acre. The slope of a field cannot be too great, and rodents can get into tunnels left by the installation process, chewing and damaging the drip lines.
Kranz noticed that in a year like 2012, the roots of some corn and soybeans, particularly corn, didn’t get down to where the water was coming out of the emitter, so they experienced stress even though irrigation water was applied. The problem can be more prevalent in more arid areas where soil water may not be replenished during the off-season.
Payback time on any system, center pivot or drip, relies greatly on commodity prices, and can range anywhere from two to ten years.
For their part, dealers are finding their roles in the irrigation upswing. Nebraska’s Central Valley Ag works with producers to install sensors out in the field. Retailers are also creating those prescription maps for water.
Lindsay’s Biddle believes growers will look to dealers as critical information resources, approaching farms proactively rather than reactively. “Ag retailers will be expected to not only sell and service highly efficient irrigation systems and technology,” he says, “but also serve as a knowledgeable resource and advisor and partner in the entire purchasing and growing process.”