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East Arkansas project: better use of water

It’s the third season that Phil Tacker has overseen the L’Anguille River watershed project and the east Arkansas farmers he’s working with have shifted acreage in a big way.

“The project is supported by the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission,” says the Arkansas Extension professor and engineer. “They set it up so we could work with the growers in this area to look at water management issues. We hope, at the end, we’ll have some answers on how to save water and reduce run-off and sediment levels from fields.”

Tacker is working with growers on efforts “that will, hopefully, improve their operations: flash-board risers, multiple-inlet rice irrigation, conservation tillage, surge valves for furrow-irrigated crops.”

Field scale production data are being collected.

Working with Ron Hall, who farms 3,300 acres outside Palestine, Ark., Tacker found multiple inlet irrigation on rice saved 21 percent over conventional flooding.

Hall’s neighbors, Terry McGraw and his son, Clint, have been using the multiple-inlet system for several years. Tacker says it’s been successful and “the McGraw water man continues to want to use it in rice. He says it helps manage water better.”

Both Hall and the McGraws have put in flashboard risers and surge valves. Last year, Hall used a surge valve.

This year, it was Clint McGraw’s turn to try one in soybeans and he was impressed. “Using the surge valve, I found we could get through with an irrigation about 24 hours faster than with conventional watering. It really cuts back on labor. The time spent at the field is significantly reduced. Once we got everything set up, all we had to do was go back and turn the well off. And it wasn’t too hard to figure out. This is the first time I’d seen it.”

The benefit of the surge valve is water gets across fields quicker and more uniformly. That means less pumping time and less expense.

“Clint’s silt loam field was solid planted on 60-inch wide beds that had a pretty steep slope,” says Tacker. “Water really had to wick all the way to the bed’s middles.

“After a while of running water down the middles with the normal furrow, irrigation will run out the bottom before soaking the bed middles. That means more water needs to be pumped and that wastes time and money. The surge valve helped reduce irrigation time and run-off from the field.”

On Aug. 9, there will be a field tour of the irrigation work and a free dinner. “The tour will begin at 3:30 p.m. at the Forrest City Convention Center and be followed by an informal dinner at 6:30. p.m. Congressman Marion Berry is scheduled to speak. We want to make people aware of these water management options so they can be expanded to more of the watershed.”

The tour and dinner are open to the public at no cost. “We’re asking those who plan to attend the dinner contact the St. Francis County Extension office at (870) 261-1730 so we can estimate attendance.”

More corn

The cooperating farmers all say the field day may fall in the midst of harvest. The McGraws “may be cutting milo and I know I’ll be cutting corn and will also have some rice ready to be harvested,” says Hall.

The story is similar all around Palestine with corn and milo acreage having shot up in 2007.

Last year, Hall grew rice, soybeans and a little wheat. “This year, I grew a lot of wheat and, unfortunately, ended up with about half the yield we expected before the Easter freeze.

“I decided with the corn price, I’d put in 390 acres. Because of positive input costs, I even planted some milo.”

Those choices looked good last December, “but then urea reached $400-plus a ton. I was lucky to have booked some urea before it reached that price.”

All of Hall’s corn survived the Easter freeze and he expected to finish irrigating the crop by mid-July.

“My father-in-law grew corn in 1998 — the year aflatoxin hit so hard. I’ve grown 70 acres of corn since then in areas where ground needed to be built up. This is the first year for me to grow major corn acreage. Right now, I like dealing with corn — we’ll see if I feel the same after the yields are in.”

Corn will allow Hall to get his combine in the field a bit earlier and “get some acres behind me. We’re trying to run just one combine.

“In the past, if it starts getting late in the season, someone will help cut rice or beans. With corn in the mix, maybe things will be spread out a little better and we can just use the one machine.”

The McGraws are growing 700 acres of milo this year, something they haven’t done in 25 years. Rice prices have gone down and the expense of irrigating has gone up “so we figured we’d be better off with milo,” says Terry. “We cut back our rice acres to about 750. All the rest is in soybeans.”

Like Hall, the McGraws had a big, pretty wheat crop that was hammered by the Easter freeze. “We had 750 acres and averaged only 24 bushels to the acre — about a third of our norm. That happened with wheat farmers all around here. Hopefully that freeze is a once-in-a-lifetime situation. We plan on planting a lot of wheat this fall. The price and outlook looks good for it.”

Brent Howton, another area farmer working with Tacker, has also gone with more corn at rice’s expense. “That’s strictly market-driven,” says Howton. “Back in the early spring, we were considering all crops. But the corn price justified bumping corn acres. Lately, the soybean market increasingly wants that crop. I think there will be a big shift back to beans in 2008.”

Ethanol is driving very healthy corn and milo markets. Because of that, “soybean prices are rising. Honestly, I’m optimistic for the first time in a long time.”

This year, with corn under center pivot, Howton put out preplant fertilizer conventionally. But the rest of the fertilizer was applied through the center pivot — fertigation.

“We put out a total of 225 units of nitrogen. Of that, 87 units were preplant and then we made six applications at 23 units each per circle with the pivot. I loved it and didn’t have to spend any time messing with side-dress nitrogen.”

To lessen concerns with non-irrigated corn, Howton planted soybeans in the field’s corners.

Harvest coming

With such a good, massive corn crop, Howton believes harvest “will mean the biggest east Arkansas gridlock ever. Come late August/early September, it’s going to be tough. I plan to move all my corn straight to my bins and keep away from those long lines as much as possible.”

Hall puts all of his rice in the bin. “All my corn having survived the freeze may give me a slight edge in getting it to the granary before traffic clogs it up.

“I think there will definitely be problems in getting this corn crop dumped at the elevators. And soybeans may be part of that crunch too.”

Clint McGraw, who has farmed with his father since 2002, says, “Many farmers around here stopped planting as much rice. Bins are popping up all around and those will be dedicated to corn. There’s definitely not enough storage for all the corn in this state.”

On the water-savings project, Terry McGraw says there must be more cost-share funds for on-farm water savings to continue. “We need more help with reservoirs. I’m not the only one to have repeatedly applied for EQIP and had it accepted only to find there’s no money available. Farmers are barely hanging on. Without help, we can hardly afford to put in these water-saving practices — reservoirs, tail-water recoveries and all the rest.”

For more on the L’Anguille project see


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