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Irrigation heads east

10/22/2013 @ 9:04am

The drought of 2012 heightened the thirst for the surest bet in agriculture to minimize risk: irrigation. Crucified by lack of rain early in the summer of 2012, Stoy Farms turned to its center pivot sprinklers to minimize what certainly would have been a huge yield loss .

“The best year that you can have with irrigation is the year you never turn the center pivot sprinklers on,” observes Tom Stoy, who farms with brothers Ken and Kevin in Ashley, Indiana. “In 2012, they were on all the time in those fields equipped with pivots. As a result, we probably had an average 120-bushel advantage for corn under irrigation compared to nonirrigated land.”

That single-year gain would have likely paid for every pivot that farm had ever bought, which was a common story being told across the eastern Corn Belt by farmers who had access to water and employed it with irrigation.

What’s the payback in normal years?

But 2012 was an exception. How, then, are eastern Corn Belt operators justifying the $60,000 to $110,000 investment to buy and install an irrigation pump, engine, and center pivot sprinkler in a normal year?

What makes irrigation the killer app for producers east of Nebraska is that it allows them to capitalize on the full yield potential offered by recent genetic advances in corn or soybeans.

Applying between 3 and 6 inches of water in a normal year during key crop-growth stages delivers a significant boost in yield. For Burrus Seed Farms, Arenzville, Illinois, irrigation offers a guaranteed 10% gain in corn yield year in and year out (based on 25 years of yield data). “Some years, the yield difference between dryland and irrigated corn is zero; some years, it’s 20% or more,” Kevin Burrus explains. “The rolling average over the years shows we gain about 10%. Irrigation also offers us the ability to grow corn after corn.”  

Boosting yields a tipping point

This yield advantage has been the tipping point for many farmers pondering an investment in irrigation. “I think of it as in fives,” says Randy Wood of Lindsay Corporation, seller of Zimmatic pivots. “If you take a conservative estimate of a 25-bushel-yield advantage due to irrigation and sell that crop at $5 a bushel times 125 acres (a common area covered by a pivot), that’s going to generate over $15,000 of revenue in one season. Depending on the cost of a well or getting water to your system, your payback to purchase a center pivot sprinkler system is going to be in within a three- to six-year period.”

Of course, being able to invest in irrigation is a moot point if you don’t have access to water either through surface sources or an underground aquifer. If adequate water is available or if you have access to nontraditional water sources such as effluent from hog operation, for example, it is reasonable to expect a payoff of a center pivot sprinkler system within a maximum of 10 years, according to averages obtained from various university studies.

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