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Irrigation heads east

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.


What’s the cost of irrigation?

There are definite economies of scale associated with pivots, points out Texas A&M University ag economists. “You can substantially reduce the investment of a center pivot irrigation system by increasing the length of the pivot,” explains Steve Amosson, who headed up a team that prepared the report, Economics of Irrigation Systems (available at Purchasing a half-mile-long center pivot rather than four quarter-mile systems reduces the gross investment by 40%, or $218 per acre.

Finding a field to accommodate a half-mile pivot is more of a challenge in the eastern Corn Belt than in Texas. The point holds true for investing in a seven-tower system (to cover a 125-acre field without a cornering system added to a pivot) as opposed to a four-tower system. Kansas State University economists Daniel O’Brien and Stewart Duncan pegged the average cost of purchasing just a sprinkler system at $476 per acre, with additional costs of $238 per acre for a well, pump, and gearhead, and another $66 for a well power unit and water-flow meter.

Agronomic advantages beyond yield

The payback from investing in irrigation can be felt well before a corn crop reaches the height of its water consumption from pollination until dough stage. For example, a single application of .50 to .75 inch of water in the spring can greatly improve germination, stand uniformity, herbicide activity, and reduced nitrogen volatilization losses in dry soil conditions.

In addition to guaranteeing even emergence (which has a direct impact on a corn crop’s eventual yield), Lyndon Kelley points out that irrigation improves the effectiveness of soil-applied herbicides, as well. Kelly serves both Purdue University and Michigan State University as an irrigation specialist.

The cost of applying .50 inch of water (to assure activation of herbicide) is between $1 and $4 per acre for most Indiana and Michigan producers, Kelly calculates. On the other hand, a postemergence rescue weed-control program (used to make up for poor preemerge herbicide coverage due to dry spring weather) will often cost upward of $15 to $20 per acre, he adds.


Pollination help

Irrigation’s beneficial impact on pollination is well known in the western Corn Belt. Heat, especially combined with lack of water, has devastating effects on silking, desiccating them as well as pollen grains resulting in poor pollination, warns Tom Hoegemeyer, University of Nebraska.

A corn crop suffering from water stress during silking will incur its greatest yield reduction of the entire season, warns Suat Irmak, University of Nebraska. A corn plant’s water requirements during this time (from silking until dough stage) average between .30 and .35 inch per day, he says.

Yet, this is an average during mild weather. Water climbs to over .40 inch per day during times of high temperature, low humidity, and windy conditions. Irrigating in these conditions enhances a corn or soybean crop’s ability to tolerate high temperatures, says Erick Larson, Mississippi State University.

Immediate payback

The influence irrigating made at key times of crop development were immediately felt by Joel Armistead, Adairville, Kentucky. Armistead invested in his first pivot in 2008.

From mid-June through August that year, Kentucky suffered from a drought.

Ironically, Armistead’s irrigated field yielded 305.9 (in a test sample) that year. That was the first time a farmer broke the 300-bushel-yield barrier in Kentucky.

His top dryland yield (from a nearby river bottom field) was 140 bushels. Overall, his dryland corn average in 2008 was 113 bushels.

Armistead was sold on irrigation. He has since invested in a second pivot, a towable unit that can be moved between two fields.

“This past summer, it started out on corn, where it covers 48 acres,” Armistead explains. “Then, after the corn is well along, I’ll move it to a field where it will cover 55 acres of no-till double-cropped soybeans planted after wheat. That pivot could cover more in the first field, but I have to turn off the end gun and reverse it when it comes to a power line. Consequently, it can’t make a full circle in the lower field where it is used.”

Also used to apply chemicals, nitrogen

Armistead calculates he has been able to profit up to $500 or more per acre from irrigated fields. He has been able to save $10 to $12 per acre otherwise spent on a single aerial application by being able to apply insecticides and a fungicide in addition to nitrogen through his pivot. By spoon-feeding nitrogen to his corn through the pivot, Armistead has brought his total nitrogen application down on his irrigated fields to less than 1 pound per bushel harvested.

His distant neighbors to the south, James and Jason Yarbro, have quickly come to appreciate irrigation’s application abilities, as well.

The Yarbros installed their first pivot in 2011 on their Dukedom, Tennessee, operation. The next year they added four more pivots – just in time for the 2012 drought. James says their dryland corn yielded anywhere from 0 to 70 bushels per acre that year, while the crop underneath the pivots came out of the field at around 200 bushels or better.


40 years’ experience

Triple M Farms confirms the Yarbros’ experience. “It’s been nearly 40 years since Dad started irrigation with a traveling gun,” recalls Curt Mohler of Triple M. “So we knew there was an advantage to being able to add supplemental water when the corn needs it the most.”

Today, the Piqua, Ohio, operation uses center pivots after adding its first system in 2008. The Mohlers typically apply 5 inches a season, on average – enough to boost corn yields substantially above the 150 to 160 bushels per acre they get without irrigation.

Tom Stoy’s experience mimics that of Mohler’s. “We have fields we know are capable of producing higher yields. Then we have years where the crop doesn’t get enough water, and yield drops off quite a bit,” Stoy explains. “So we’re trying to take those drop-off years out of the equation.”

To date, Stoy Farms has invested in 25 pivots and is looking to add more where it has access to water. “The way we look at it, if we’re going to put in pivots, we need to get them in while we can make some better money with high commodity prices,” Stoy says. “The quicker we get them in, the quicker we get to capitalize on the higher returns that will likely diminish over time.”

Investment return of $1,700 to $2,000 an acre

That return is a sure thing, says Kevin Burrus, adding that his father, Todd, and his uncle, Tom, used to calculate their operation could invest about 20% of their land’s value  (about $1,000 per acre) to install a pivot. With recent increases in land value, they figure the investment return is closer to $1,700 to $2,000 per acre.

“One of the hidden benefits we’ve discovered as we have become more concerned about the movement of nitrogen in the soil is the ability to apply nitrogen through the pivots,” Burrus points out. “Back in 2009 when we had a lot of rain in June, we knew that a lot of our nitrogen had leached out. When the corn is shoulder high, there aren’t a lot of options for sidedressing. So we’ve gone to applying some nitrogen through the pivots on certain soil types. We can use less fertilizer and apply it in a more timely window.”

J.R. Thompson has discovered the same benefit, except his nitrogen source is fluid hog manure from his swine operation. The Lawrenceville, Illinois, farmer figures irrigation gives him 50 and up to 100 bushels more corn per acre over dryland fields. “With today’s commodity prices, I believe a 160-acre pivot can be paid off in two years.”

Fellow Illini farmers Jim and John Stevens calculate the payback from investing in irrigation at three to five years. “During dry times, that’s more like two years,” says Jim, who farms near Allendale, Illinois. “On field corners (not covered by a sprinkler system), yields can drop down as much as 50 bushels per acre. That illustrates the payback. Irrigation also allows us to double-crop soybeans and wheat.”

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