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 100Wheat Growers, North Central Farmers Elevator Pursue Merger
March 3, 2015
Two CropLife 100 retailers — South Dakota Wheat Growers (ranked No. 11) and North Central Farmers Elevator (No. 19) — have entered into a Letter of Intent to unify the two companies into a newly named cooperative. Read More
Growmark Group
CropLife 100GROWMARK In 2015: Back, To The Future
March 2, 2015
The nation’s third largest ag retail organization is simultaneously moving forward while remembering its past. Read More
CropLife 100Pinnacle Expands Sanders Brand In The South
February 27, 2015
Pinnacle has acquired Hopkins Seed and Chemical in Qulin, MO, which expands the company's Sanders brand to nine Southern states. Read More
CropLife 100Pinnacle Launches New Providence Agriculture Location In Indiana
February 27, 2015
Pinnacle Agriculture Holdings — ranked No. 6 on the CropLife 100 — has established a new retail location in New Castle, IN, which will operate as part of Pinnacle's Providence Agriculture brand. Read More
CropLife 100Cooperative CHS Returns $518 Million To Owners
February 23, 2015
The 2015 cash return to owners is based on CHS net income of $1.1 billion, the company's second highest on record. Read More
corn field
CropLife 100The Andersons’ Humic DG Now Available In Canada
February 13, 2015
The Andersons, Inc. Turf & Specialty Group has announced its Humic DG product is now available to customers in the Canadian turf, agriculture and horticulture markets. Read More
Latest News
CropLife 100Wheat Growers, North Central Farmers Elevator Pursue Me…
March 3, 2015
Two CropLife 100 retailers — South Dakota Wheat Growers (ranked No. 11) and North Central Farmers Elevator (No. 19) — have entered into a Letter of Intent to unify the two companies into a newly named cooperative. Read More
Equipment10 Tips for Spring Planter Preparation
March 3, 2015
Kinze Manufacturing offers advice on how to ensure your planter is ready before you hit the field. Read More
Industry NewsOABA 2015 LAUNCH Program Recognizes 20 New Graduates
March 3, 2015
Twenty Ohio agribusiness leaders are being recognized as the latest graduates of Ohio AgriBusiness Association’s LAUNCH program. Read More
EquipmentNew AGCO Website Helps Customers Shop For Certified Pre…
March 3, 2015
RoGator sprayers are among the wide range of CPO equipment available through AGCO's site. Read More
Enlist spray Demo
HerbicidesGuiding New Herbicide Systems’ Launches
March 3, 2015
Under careful watch, the new 2,4-D- and dicamba-tolerant crops hit more acres this season. Read More
Eric SfiligojCommodity Classic 2015: Playing The Waiting Game
March 2, 2015
There was plenty of future-talk at this year’s event as companies (and growers) are largely in a holding pattern of sorts. Read More
Industry NewsHighway Equipment Appoints New Director Of Business Dev…
March 2, 2015
Cory Venable, who joined Highway Equipment Company (HECO) in 2013 as OEM Account Manager, has been promoted to Director of Business Development. Read More
Prairieland FS employees
Eric SfiligojWorkforce Worries
March 2, 2015
Finding good employees almost always ranks as the No. 1 or No. 2 problem for ag retailers in our annual CropLife 100 survey. Read More
Growmark Group
CropLife 100GROWMARK In 2015: Back, To The Future
March 2, 2015
The nation’s third largest ag retail organization is simultaneously moving forward while remembering its past. Read More
CropLife 100Pinnacle Expands Sanders Brand In The South
February 27, 2015
Pinnacle has acquired Hopkins Seed and Chemical in Qulin, MO, which expands the company's Sanders brand to nine Southern states. Read More
CropLife 100Pinnacle Launches New Providence Agriculture Location I…
February 27, 2015
Pinnacle Agriculture Holdings — ranked No. 6 on the CropLife 100 — has established a new retail location in New Castle, IN, which will operate as part of Pinnacle's Providence Agriculture brand. Read More
2,4-D Celebrates 70 Years; GROWMARK Uses Super Bowl Ad To Share Positive Message
Management2,4-D Celebrates 70 Years; GROWMARK Uses Super Bowl Ad …
February 27, 2015
Jim Gray, executive director of the 2,4-D Research Task Force, lays out planned activities to mark the chemistry’s 70th anniversary. Read More
HerbicidesUniversity Of Arkansas Flag The Technology Program Adds…
February 27, 2015
Started in 2010, the Flag the Technology program provides a visual reference for applicators to distinguish between fields planted with different herbicide-tolerant trait technologies. Read More
Luckey Farmers, Inc.’s Berkey Farm Center
Industry NewsLuckey Farmers’ Berkey Branch Certified In 4R Nut…
February 26, 2015
The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program has announced Luckey Farmers Inc.’s Berkey Farm Center in northwest Ohio has been added to its growing list of nutrient service providers to achieve certified status. Read More
Crop InputsWinField Unveiling NutriVision Technology, Ascend Dry F…
February 24, 2015
New for 2015 are NutriVision Technology, a unique tool for monitoring in-season plant nutrient availability, and Ascend WSG plant growth regulator, a new dry formulation of Ascend plant growth regulator. Read More
FertilizerNew Formulation Of NutriSphere-N Protects High Volume U…
February 24, 2015
Verdesian Life Sciences is launching NutriSphere-N HVTM, a new polymer formulation of the proven NutriSphere-N Nitrogen Fertilizer Manager that protects high-volume applications of UAN. Read More
EquipmentIowa Ag Secretary Northey Names Hagie Water Quality Lea…
February 24, 2015
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey has named Hagie Mfg. as a recipient of the Secretary’s Water Quality Initiative (WQI) Leader Award. Read More
FungicidesEvito Fungicide Gives Canadian Wheat Growers New Diseas…
February 24, 2015
EVITO fungicide from Arysta LifeScience North America gives Canadian wheat and barley growers a new option for disease control. Read More