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 100BRANDT Commemorates National Ag Day
March 20, 2015
The Illinois agriculture community gathered at BRANDT global headquarters on March 18 to celebrate National Ag Day behind this year's theme Sustaining Future Generations. Read More
Wheat Growers, North Central Farmers Elevator Pursue Merger
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
Carl Casale of CHS
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
Latest News
FungicidesSyngenta Suing Willowood Over Azoxystrobin Fungicide
March 27, 2015
Syngenta announced today that it has sued agrochemical maker Willowood, LLC., for patent and copyright infringement, as well as unfair Read More
ManagementRetail Week: The Future Of Mycogen Seeds; The 4Rs At Na…
March 27, 2015
Editors Eric Sfiligoj and Matt Hopkins discuss recent trips, including a look at the future of Mycogen Seeds at Dow Read More
Eric SfiligojMonsanto Hears The WHO
March 27, 2015
Another challenge to the safety of glyphosate, and the responses from supporters and opponents, calls to mind a classic Dr. Seuss story. Read More
Industry NewsMonty’s Plant Food Expands Sales Team
March 27, 2015
Monty’s Plant Food Company, a leader in natural soil enhancement and  plant fertility products, has hired Andrew Bullock as a Read More
Crop InputsSyngenta Louisiana Plant Poised For 2015 Production
March 26, 2015
As the 2015 planting season gets underway, growers across the country will need crop protection products to combat pests and Read More
Lake Erie Nutrient Stewardship
LegislationOhio Lawmakers Finalize Phosphorus Restrictions
March 25, 2015
State lawmakers on Wednesday finalized new rules designed to curb toxic algal blooms on Lake Erie, calling the regulations a major step forward in addressing the problem. Read More
Spreaders17 Fertilizer Spreaders For 2015
March 25, 2015
Manufacturers shoot for versatility and accuracy in this year's crop of fertilizer spreaders. Read More
Industry NewsMonty’s Hires Mid-South Product Consultant
March 25, 2015
Monty's Plant Food Co. has hired Matt Woodring as a Product Consultant for portions of Central Kentucky and Tennessee.    Read More
StewardshipMapShots Integrates With DriftWatch
March 23, 2015
Growers and agricultural providers using AgStudio FARM and AgStudio PRO can now view vital information about specialty crops and apiaries through a recent integration with the DriftWatch Specialty Crop Site Registry from FieldWatch, Inc. Read More
Crop InputsWorld Health Organization Report Contradicts Scientific…
March 23, 2015
A new report from the World Health Organization has classified glyphosate with a “2A” rating as a probable carcinogen, a Read More
Eric SfiligojSeed Treatment Stays Necessary
March 20, 2015
Grower-customers looking to scale back spending in 2015 won’t consider seed treatment, say experts. Read More
HerbicidesMARCH MADNESS: Industry Rallies Around Glyphosate Safet…
March 20, 2015
A newly published report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies the herbicide glyphosate as a "2A-rated possible carcinogen" and the ag industry responds by circling the wagons. Read More
ManagementRetail Week: Precision survey, a technology acquisition…
March 20, 2015
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sflilgoj discuss recent travel, the upcoming precision adoption survey, and an unusual sighting at a Read More
CropLife 100BRANDT Commemorates National Ag Day
March 20, 2015
The Illinois agriculture community gathered at BRANDT global headquarters on March 18 to celebrate National Ag Day behind this year's theme Sustaining Future Generations. Read More
Crop InputsBioSafe Launching TerraGrow Soil Inoculant
March 20, 2015
TerraGrow is a blend of beneficial bacterial and fungal spores and nutrients carefully designed to promote healthier soil and crops. Read More
Winter Wheat
AdjuvantsMax Systems Debuts New Adjuvant NanoRevolution 2.0
March 18, 2015
Added to a tank mix of glyphosate at the conservative rate of two to four ounces per acre, NanoRevolution 2.0 has proven effective in killing resistant weed species that had already had up to two applications of the leading glyphosate product. Read More
Photo credit: United Soybean Board/the Soybean Checkoff
Seed/BiotechAgnition Launches Microbial Catalyst Seed Treatment
March 18, 2015
Agnition it has launched Commence for Soybeans, a microbial catalyst seed treatment for soybeans that stimulates microbial activity for healthier soil and a superior growth environment. Read More
4R Certified, Nutrient Stewardship Council,
StewardshipTyler Grain & Fertilizer Now 4R Certified
March 18, 2015
The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program has announced Tyler Grain & Fertilizer Co. in Smithville, OH, has been added to Read More