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

Craig Houin Sunrise Cooperative iPad
Precision AgState Of Precision Ag 2016: Gut Check Time For Value
May 31, 2016
There’s no denying that precision technologies and practices are more vibrant than ever. Equipment manufacturers have fine-tuned the hardware for Read More
fertilizer blending and storage, Top 100
BlendersCHS Dakota Expansion Features AGCO’s GSI InterSystems Handling Equipment
May 25, 2016
The continued growth of precision agriculture has increased farmer use of customized fertilizer blends best-suited for their soil conditions. Several Read More
Topcon’s X30 display with CropSpec sensors
EquipmentGPS Autosteer Systems: Product Updates From Precision Ag Companies
May 24, 2016
Throughout 2015 GPS Steering solutions continued to evolve from what was once an after-market add on, to today’s cab where Read More
Trimble TMX-2050 In-Cab Display
Eric SfiligojThe Precision Ag Revolution Continues
May 24, 2016
It’s funny how much “the first time” tends to mean to someone as they get older. I sometimes can’t recall Read More
Trending Articles
Food IT
Industry NewsCalifornia Event Will Mix Ag And Tech Professionals To Explore IT Solutions
June 20, 2016
Silicon Valley is hot on agriculture, and an upcoming event in California will bring together the food and tech industries Read More
Monsanto Luling Plant
Eric SfiligojWhat’s Next For Monsanto?
May 31, 2016
For the folks at Monsanto’s headquarters in St. Louis, MO, it has been an eventful few weeks. Back on May Read More
Soybean Plant closeup
Industry NewsMonsanto Rejects Bayer Bid; Open To More Talks
May 25, 2016
Monsanto Co, the world’s largest seed company, turned down Bayer AG’s $62 billion acquisition bid as “incomplete and financially inadequate” Read More
Eric SfiligojPity The Monsanto Haters
May 23, 2016
An old saying goes thus: “Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.” Given current events, there Read More
Monsanto Luling Plant
Crop InputsReport: Bayer Eyeing Monsanto For Possible Mega-Merger
May 16, 2016
Bayer AG is exploring a potential bid for U.S. competitor Monsanto Co. in a deal that would create the world’s Read More
Aerial Drone
Precision AgA Deeper Dive Into The Future Of Precision Ag
May 9, 2016
For about two decades now, through the good and the bad times, the ups and the downs inherent in agriculture, Read More
Latest News
Eric SfiligojThe British Leave Vote Impact On EU Agriculture
June 27, 2016
Like virtually everyone else in the world this past week, I’ve watched the global reaction to Britain’s vote to exit Read More
Valent David Nothmann
Crop InputsValent Names David Nothmann Vice President Of Marketing
June 27, 2016
Valent U.S.A. Corp. has announced the appointment of David Nothmann as vice president of marketing. Nothmann will be responsible for Read More
The Andersons Waterloo
ManagementFirst Indiana Facility Certified Under 4R Nutrient Stew…
June 27, 2016
The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program has announced that The Andersons, Inc.’s Waterloo, IN, facility has been added to its Read More
CropLife 100BRANDT Contributes To Mayo Clinic
June 27, 2016
BRANDT, a leading agriculture retailer and manufacturer of specialty agriculture products, has pledged a sizable donation to the Mayo Clinic Read More
ManagementReport: U.S. Farmland Values On Average Continue Gradua…
June 27, 2016
Land price movement has been in the forefront for farmers, landowners, lenders and land brokers for a decade now during Read More
AdjuvantsPrecision Laboratories Introduces Intact Xtra For Use W…
June 27, 2016
Precision Laboratories announces the launch of Intact Xtra, an adjuvant designed for applicators who want to maximize spray applications and Read More
Key Cooperative’s new liquid fertilizer, crop chemical, and seed facility in Grinnell, IA stores 1.5 million gallons of liquid fertilizer and 120,000 gallons of crop chemicals.
Retail FacilitiesKey Cooperative Facility Features The Latest In Murray …
June 27, 2016
When Key Cooperative wanted to improve the overall efficiency at its new state-of-the-art facility in Grinnell, IA, it turned to Read More
Allen Summers Asmark Institute PSM Training
EmployeesAsmark Institute Sponsors 25 ResponsibleAg Auditor Trai…
June 21, 2016
The Asmark Institute has announced plans to provide 25 scholarships through their affiliated State fertilizer and agrichemical associations to help encourage Read More
Kennebec Elevator
CropLife 100Wheat Growers Celebrates Kennebec Elevator Grand Openin…
June 21, 2016
Over 250 patrons and guests were on hand to celebrate Wheat Growers’ Kennebec Elevator grand opening. South Dakota Secretary of Read More
Land O Lakes
Industry NewsLand O’Lakes To Acquire Ceres
June 20, 2016
Land O’ Lakes, Inc. and Ceres, Inc. have announced that they have signed a definitive merger agreement under which Land O’Lakes Read More
Food IT
Industry NewsCalifornia Event Will Mix Ag And Tech Professionals To …
June 20, 2016
Silicon Valley is hot on agriculture, and an upcoming event in California will bring together the food and tech industries Read More
LegislationVilsack Christens WinField Crop Adventure, Talks Monsan…
June 17, 2016
The WinField Crop Adventure grand opening ceremonies at Fair Oaks Farms (near Winemac, IN) welcomed USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Read More
Crop InputsFields of the Future: WinField Doubles Down with Agri-E…
June 16, 2016
Land O’Lakes, Inc., joined by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, today will host Fields of the Future, a live broadcast about Read More
Bayer sign
Crop InputsMonsanto Turns Back Bayer Again
June 14, 2016
Bayer AG’s bid to buy Monsanto Co. for more than $60 billion has hit an impasse that could pose a Read More
Young Corn Field
Crop NutritionNext Generation Of Nitrogen Efficiency Technology Conve…
June 13, 2016
Commodity price projections indicate farmers will continue to face tight margins again this year. Delivering higher yields and more bushels Read More
Industry NewsLa Crosse Seed Acquires Cover Crop Solutions Brand
June 10, 2016
La Crosse Seed announces that it is the new and exclusive owner of the entire family of brands of Cover Read More
ManagementTravel Plans and EU Rejection of Glyphosate, Biotech Cr…
June 9, 2016
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj talk about upcoming trips and the latest in the European Union’s moves against glyphosate Read More