Even five years ago, many U.S. vegetable growers felt no need to invest in irrigation systems and equipment. But as rainfall is drying up for long spells, farms are trying to figure out the best way to jump in without making expensive mistakes.
Here are some tips from irrigation specialists on how to get started.
Low-Cost Infrastructure Allows Future Ramp Up
Irrigation is a big investment. Not just the cost of the irrigation infrastructure, but also the water and electricity.
Often, we see growers taking a conservative approach when testing new ways. They want a way to do to their testing and analysis without adding time and overhead to their already busy day.
Being able to analyze the success of a new irrigation project is important. And adding solar powered, connected in-ground sensors for root monitoring is a comparatively small, incremental investment. In fact, it comes with a lot of advantages which, over time, will pay for itself. For one, it gives the grower the ability to monitor particular fields or compare approaches across different fields without having to visit the fields in person.
Having root-specific data literally avoids “spray and pray” – watering the field and hoping something good happens. Studies based on data collected from 1950 to 2015 shows that simply adding irrigation for corn, soybean, spring wheat, winter wheat, sorghum, cotton, barley, oats and alfalfa, can yield 210% to 250% more than when relying only on rainfall. That sounds like a great win.
However, that’s literally leaving money on the table. The next evolution is to flip the current “horizontal” way (spraying across the field) on its head. That approach assumes that since the soil is moist, it’s benefiting the roots.
Looking downward into the active root zone up to 48 inches is what we call a “vertical” approach. Using this new vertical approach of looking at each crop’s roots, a grower can gain up to another 40% more yield in addition to conserving valuable water and costly nutrients. A vertical approach lets the grower better control the timing and volume of irrigation as well as nutrients which leads to better crop health, consistency and yield
Bruce Moeller, CEO, AquaSpy
Start Small and Learn as You Go
We always advise our growers to start small way and increase acreage as their comfort level increases. One acre this season, 10 acres next season, then the whole farm. Wait until you have mastered the basics of drip over the first few years before thinking about advanced sensors. Irrigation, especially drip, requires major changes in the way you manage your crops and shouldn’t be taken on all at once. You will only learn with experience.
Jerry McDonald, President, Grow Irrigation
Trial Temp Equipment First
There are a variety of portable or temporary irrigation systems available, such as hose reels and above ground pipe systems (poly, layflat, etc.). If a grower is having to only occasionally apply supplemental irrigation, the use of portable systems is an option. If and when it may become more of a routine requirement, then way in a permanent system should be considered. In either case, determining when to apply the water is critical step in the irrigation process. However, you can achieve this at a minimal cost by measuring the actual root zone water conditions and applying water only when needed.
Tom Penning, President, IRROMETER Company Inc
Pivot Is Surprisingly Affordable
Adding irrigation to a farm is nothing more than adding “drought insurance.” If a grower has fields that would benefit from ensuring reliable and consistent water for the crop, then irrigation is a way fit.
Pivot irrigation is not as costly as many growers assume it will be. The actual water need for most crops is only about 6 gallons per minute/acre with no rainfall. But many systems are over-designed to compensate for low efficiency water application. By designing a customized, efficient pivot irrigation system, growers can both control the uncertainty of rainfall and ensure the correct amount of water is utilized to irrigate.
Applying the correct amount of water at the right time is crucial to getting a good yield, but it’s also important to apply it uniformly. Surface irrigation systems can fall short in this area, but pivot systems apply water evenly throughout the field at precisely the right amount, meaning they can achieve higher efficiencies with lower costs than other types of irrigation.
Pivot irrigation systems are easy to operate and can be mostly automated using remote monitoring and control technology, like Lindsay’s FieldNET. They also lend themselves to crop modeling and irrigation scheduling technology, like FieldNET Advisor, without needing to utilize soil moisture probes and other expensive sensors. FieldNET Advisor is an automated irrigation scheduling tool that simplifies irrigation decisions for growers by providing recommendations on when, where and how much to irrigate.
Farris Hightower, Regional Sales Manager, Lindsay Corporation
Visit Irrigated Peers
Growers in areas where irrigation was not previously considered will help themselves the most by visiting regions of the country that have been irrigating a while.
For example, if an apple grower in the Eastern U.S. who has not irrigated in the past and is considering starting, they might visit the state of Washington. It will help them understand why apple growers use both drip and sprinkler irrigation. He’ll also learn how they frost protect with sprinklers. And which years in the trees’ development is best for sprinklers versus when drip is a better option.
Vegetable growers might visit the Central Valley of California, where operations primarily use solid set sprinklers and drip tape. Other options are Washington or Idaho. There, farms use pivot irrigation most often to grow potatoes, carrots, and sweet corn. They all need to discover the role various irrigation systems might play in increasing yield. Many are likely to discover installing irrigation systems has a good ROI even if weather patterns don’t change.
John Rowley, Rotator Product Manager, Nelson Irrigation Corporation
Rent Before You Buy
In the West, rental systems are available for row crops. Start with something way that is operationally simple; upgrades are usually easy.
Jim Clare, CEO and Founder of Pacific Southwest Irrigation
Filter Your Water Supply
Most growers have multiple water systems and water supplies. Whether the water comes from lakes, ponds, wells, or rivers and streams, they need to filter the water. Start way out installing a filter system. One of their suppliers will give them a good reference on how the filtration system works. The initial cost won’t be that much. It will be well before they have a capital expense of installing filters on all of their water supplies.
Daniel S Flanick, Manager, Tekleen