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Economy slows drip irrigation expansion

Drip irrigation in the Texas Plains is like an investment in real estate during a building boom. You know you'll make money if you can just afford to buy a good piece of property.

That philosophy has been driving sales of subsurface drip irrigation (SDI) systems for the past four or five years, according to dealers and manufacturers who service this area.

“The trend for installing drip irrigation has been up every year for the past 10 years,” says Hubert Frerich, president of Eco-Drip Subsurface Irrigation in Garden City.

“As farmers gain confidence in the systems and become more comfortable with them, they want to increase acreage,” he says. “It's become a way of life in the St. Lawrence (near San Angelo) area,” he says.

Frerich, and other area dealers discussed the outlook for SDI systems recently during a Natural Resources Conservation Service seminar in Lubbock.

Frerich says he installed the first drip system in 1985 and just recently replaced it. “It was still working well and we thought about leaving it to see just how long it would last, but we have systems that are considerably more efficient now, so we changed it out.”

He says the agricultural economy of St. Lawrence would be in shambles without drip irrigation. “We have approximately 40,000 acres in SDI, mostly cotton.”

Frerich says demand did slow this year because of a poor agricultural economy. “It's the first time in 10 years that the trend has slowed,” he says. “Weather (heavy rains in the spring) also affected installations.”

Frerich's sons David and Brian also expect acreage in drip irrigation to continue to increase.

“Interest is still there,” David says, “even with a poor economy and lousy weather. Rain hit and cotton prices are low. Also, we've heard that some bankers were hesitant on operating loans this year.

“If we see cotton prices back in a profitable range, demand will pick back up. In the meantime, we're learning how to get the most out of the systems.”

“We have to work with crop consultants and agronomists to find what we can put through these systems to make them more efficient,” Brian says.

“We already know we can spoon feed crops through SDI,” Frerich says. “We can provide nutrients as the plant needs it.”

“Just about every farmer in the area wants to put in a drip system, but the economy will not allow it this year,” says Layne Adams, Gilbreath Drip Irrigation, Rawls, Texas. “The trend has been to increase acreage for the past few years, but we have not had as much demand as we should have had because of low crop prices.”

“A lot of growers say they want it on every acre,” Adams says, “but this year, money is tight.”

He says advantages include more efficient water use and increased yield.

“Farmers can decrease acreage and increase productivity with a more efficient irrigation system,” he says. “They know it will work. This is not an experiment any longer.”

In addition to cotton, Adams says farmers are looking at corn and alfalfa as potential SDI crops.

“We're getting a lot of dairies into the area,” he says, “and that means a bigger demand for grain and alfalfa.”

Randall Merriott, Equipment Supply Company, Inc., Lubbock, says drip sales have “been flat this year because of the ag economy. “We haven't seen a big increase this year,” he says.

“That's also the case with other types of irrigation equipment, as well. For the last few years, however, the trend has been up.”

Farmers in the Texas High Plains need the most efficient irrigation system they can get, says Cleon Nameken, a water management engineer with the NRCS in Lubbock.

“As much as 95 percent of the water from the Ogallala aquifer is used by agriculture, so any conservation will be significant.”

He agrees that the trend in increased SDI installations has been steady until this year. “Before this year, we were seeing consistent increases in acreage for drip irrigation. We've seen a lot of cotton using SDI systems and it has been a bit unusual for a farmer to use drip on a crop other than a high-value commodity (such as vegetables).”

Nameken says a drip system is approximately 95 percent efficient — 95 percent of the water applied is available to the plant. That compares to 90 percent to 95 percent with Low Energy Precision Application (LEPA) systems and 90 percent for low nozzle systems.

Conventional center pivot systems are about 80 percent efficient because of evaporation losses, he says.

Furrow or row watering system efficiency ranges from 50 percent to 80 percent, depending on soil types,” Nameken says. “Tight, clay soils will be more efficient than sandy loams.”

Nameken says farmers may qualify for cost-share funds to install SDI systems. The seminar highlighted requirements and application steps needed to qualify for funds.

“Programs are available from both the USDA and the State to offset some of the expense of installing drip or LEPA systems,” he says.

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