Maximizing Returns From Water Inputs

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.

Valley Irrigation 8000 series center pivots
Valley 8000 Series center pivots in action.

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.

Key Technologies

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.

Lindsay FieldNETGrowers 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.

Valley Variable Rate Irrigation
Valley Irrigation’s variable-rate technology can control banks of sprinklers, turning on and off sets of one to 20 sprinklers at a time.

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.”

Leave a Reply

One comment on “Maximizing Returns From Water Inputs

  1. There is no qustion that drip irrigation is more efficient and less expensive than pivot or flood irrigation What most researchers and growers fail to consider is the role soil microorganisms play in water production and water retention. Water production takes place during photosynthesis, nitrification and denitrification. it also takes place during decomposition of organic matter.
    The water is stored in the biofilm next to the roots where it is needed. The bacteria are like small ballons thus increasing water storage at an estimated rate of 200,000 gallons per 2.47 acres of soil.the

Precision Ag Stories
Precision AgGoogle Glass: New Tool For Ag
October 8, 2014
New wearable smart technologies such as Google Glass show potential to greatly impact how we accomplish the business of feeding the world. Read More
Precision AgPrecision Agriculture: Finding The Payback
September 6, 2014
Profitability in precision ag is not about any one technology, but the result of employing technology in a total system approach that is agronomically sound. Read More
Precision AgUAS: The S Stands For Smart, Service And Sensors
May 1, 2014
The only thing occuring more rapidly than the technologies’ evolution is the clamoring to implement UAS into agriculture as soon as possible. Read More
Precision AgAg Retail: 3 Tech Trends To Watch In 2014
April 1, 2014
It's been a busy first quarter of technology developments in 2014. Here are some of the highlights, and things to watch in the months ahead. Read More
Top 100 Articles
CropLife 100The Andersons Starts Venture Capital Subsidiary
January 26, 2015
The Andersons has established Maumee Ventures, a venture capital subsidiary designed to foster promising innovations that strategically align with the company’s core businesses. Read More
CropLife 100CHS Partners With Northern Partners Coop On Fertilizer Warehouse
January 21, 2015
In addition, the two companies will form a joint venture to build and operate a grain barge loading facility that will handle corn, soybeans and wheat for export through the CHS terminal at Myrtle Grove, LA. Read More
CropLife 100Wilbur-Ellis Move To Colorado Complete
January 20, 2015
Wilbur-Ellis Co. announces the opening of its new Agribusiness Division location in the Denver, CO, Metro Area. The new facility will host key personnel as the company shifts the base of its Agribusiness operations from California to Colorado. Read More
CropLife 100United Suppliers, McGregor Co., Five Others To Form Aligned Ag Distributors
January 20, 2015
These companies will continue to operate as independently owned and operated businesses, however, their crop protection divisions will now be formally aligned under the umbrella of Aligned Ag Distributors. Read More
CropLife 100Bozeman Named SEEDWAY Chief Operating Officer
January 16, 2015
He succeeds Donald Wertman, who will retire at the end of August 2015 after 40 years with the GROWMARK subsidiary. Read More
CropLife 100Wilbur-Ellis’ Craig Bair Honored For Safety Contributions To Ag Aviation
January 14, 2015
The William O. Marsh Safety Award recognizes significant achievements in safety, safety education or an outstanding operational safety program. Read More
Latest News
Frogeye Leaf Spot on soybean
FungicidesFungicides Promising Yield Bumps In Tough Times
February 1, 2015
Some exciting newcomers should make selling fungicides easier. Read More
Seed/BiotechDow Details Enlist Trait Stacking Standards
January 30, 2015
Dow says it will allow the Enlist trait to be stacked with advanced glyphosate traits only, and will not allow stacking with the first generation of the Roundup Ready trait. Read More
ManagementCropLife Retail Week: IFCA’s Jean Payne on Illinois wat…
January 30, 2015
Editor Eric Sfiligoj shares insight from the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association conference including a chat with IFCA President Jean Read More
ManagementOABA Conference Set To Highlight Trends, Technology And…
January 29, 2015
The third annual Ohio AgriBusiness Association (OABA) Industry Conference is set to take place February 4-5. Read More
FertilizerThe Fertilizer Institute President Jahn Testifies Befor…
January 28, 2015
The committee hearing, "Freight Rail Transportation: Enhancing Safety, Efficiency, and Commerce," looked at challenges facing our nation's freight rail network created by higher demand, rules and regulations and infrastructure needs. Read More
HerbicidesPurdue University Acquires Technology For Herbicide Mol…
January 28, 2015
Protea's LAESI DP-1000 Instrument System will be used in Purdue's College of Agriculture, the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, for the molecular imaging of herbicide active ingredients and other related compounds to optimize herbicide applications and improve weed management.  Read More
FertilizerH.J. Baker Hires New Crop Peformance Marketing Manager
January 27, 2015
As Marketing Manager for the Crop Performance division, Usman Khalid will work out of H.J. Baker’s global headquarters in Westport, CT, and will drive new initiatives for the division. Read More
CropLife 100The Andersons Starts Venture Capital Subsidiary
January 26, 2015
The Andersons has established Maumee Ventures, a venture capital subsidiary designed to foster promising innovations that strategically align with the company’s core businesses. Read More
Exclusive state-of-the art Stueve Construction designed “Vista View” Elevated Control Room.
Eric Sfiligoj2015 Agricultural Market Read: Mixed
January 26, 2015
The agricultural market could look radically different this year, profit-wise, depending upon which segment you do business in. Read More
Edward Chell Biosafe
Crop InputsBioSafe Systems Names Ed Chell California Territory Man…
January 26, 2015
BioSafe Systems has announced the recent addition of Ed Chell as California Territory Manager for the agrichemical division, supporting the crop protection, water treatment and food safety business segments. Read More
InsecticidesBayer CropScience Introduces Sivanto Insecticide
January 26, 2015
Sivanto precisely targets key damaging pests at multiple insect life stages to prevent damage to plants and help minimize the spread of diseases from insect carriers. Read More
ManagementRetail Collaboration, Communicating Agriculture’s Good …
January 23, 2015
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj discuss the recent creation of Aligned Ag Distributors, and the US Farmers and Ranchers Read More
FertilizerOSU Expert: Toledo Water Crisis A Turning Point For Ohi…
January 23, 2015
The August 2014 water crisis in Toledo, OH, impacted Ohioans’ views of Lake Erie algae problems by increasing the attribution of blame of algae growth on agriculture. Read More
FertilizerH.J. Baker Launching TIGER XP
January 22, 2015
Tiger-Sul introduces this next generation sulphur-bentonite product with a proprietary activator – ensuring farmers have a well-balanced nutrient replacement program. Read More
Crop InputsH.J. Baker Expands China Sales Force
January 21, 2015
Global Agricultural firm H.J. Baker announced that sales veteran Shi Dongshen has joined their Shanghai office in China. This newest hire follows the recent opening of their Lianyungang Sulphur Bentonite Plant. Read More
CropLife 100CHS Partners With Northern Partners Coop On Fertilizer …
January 21, 2015
In addition, the two companies will form a joint venture to build and operate a grain barge loading facility that will handle corn, soybeans and wheat for export through the CHS terminal at Myrtle Grove, LA. Read More
Matt Hopkins5 Bold Predictions For Ag Retail In 2015
January 21, 2015
This past year was filled with ups and downs for the nation’s top ag retailers, but what will 2015 have in store? Read More
SoftwareDeere Launches App Center
January 20, 2015
The John Deere App Center provides users the ability to search and find apps most useful to their business or operations. Read More