Last week was an eye-opener to say the least – spending a week with engineers, researchers, and representatives of the irrigation industry, coming from across the U.S., from the High Plains, to the Pacific Northwest to the Mississippi Delta – will do that. This year's 2015 Irrigation Show and Education Conference gave a fresh perspective on the expansion of irrigation into new frontiers.
By now, most have heard that looming number, 9 billion – the number of people in the world farmers and ranchers will need to feed by 2050. What many haven't heard a lot about is the important role water will play in meeting this demand. That's where irrigation comes in.
When most think of irrigation, they probably think of the High Plains or the Central Valley of California. It stands to reason, considering these areas have some of the highest numbers of irrigated acres in the U.S. However, over the last 30 to 40 years, there has been an expansion of irrigated acres in regions like the Mississippi Delta and other parts of the southeast and eastern U.S.
These regions receive ample amounts of rainfall, so why do they need irrigation? In addition to drought years like 2012, it comes down to ensuring the crop has enough water at the right time – in corn for example, this means during pollination and during grain-fill. This demand can be met by precipitation, soil moisture, and of course, irrigation.
Yes, the crop-producing regions east of the 100th meridian do receive more annual rainfall, but most of it comes from April to June. Irrigating when the crop needs it is just one additional step taken toward fine-tuning management to increase production and meet that global demand for food.
For many, it's about using water more efficiently. Take for example the Mississippi Delta – a region that is, by no means, short on water. Most of the rice grown in the U.S. is grown there, particularly in eastern Arkansas. Rice is a water-intensive crop, and while many of the level fields in eastern Arkansas are suited to flood irrigation that's often used in rice production, some are now looking into center pivots as a way to conserve water while providing an opportunity to rotate into other crops.
Then there's the Pacific Northwest, a region that's known for an abundance of precipitation on the west coast, and a more arid climate in the east. While the Texas Panhandle and other parts of the Southern High Plains have seen the greatest use of center pivots with LESA (Low Elevation Spray Application) and LEPA (Low Energy Precise Application) systems, growers in states like Washington and Idaho are finding value in these systems that make more efficient use of energy and water.
The bottom line is every grower has a preference for the system they're using, and certain kinds of irrigation systems are always expanding into new crop-producing regions of the country as growers fine-tune their management and improve efficiency.