Many of Arkansas’ corn, rice and soybean farmers may be irrigating their crops too often and with so much water they are reducing the irrigation efficiency and water conservation on their farm.
That’s one of the lessons cited by the winners of the second annual Arkansas Irrigation Yield Contest. The winners were announced at the Arkansas Soil and Water Education Conference at Arkansas State University.
“What’s neat about this contest is that everyone who enters gets a report card,” said Chris Henry, the organizer and director of the contest. “It tells you how you ranked without anyone else knowing — how you came out on yield and how you did on water use efficiency.”
The 2019 contest, which has the theme “Most Crop Per Drop,” saw good representation with 30 fields scattered across the eastern half of the state, according to Henry, associate professor and water management engineer with the University of Arkansas’ Rice Research and Extension Center in Stuttgart, Ark.
“You get this metric that you can take to your banker and tell him how good an irrigator you are because you’re at the top of the list,” said Henry. “If you’re at the bottom, you can think about what you can do better.”
2019 was a difficult year for many of the state’s farmers. Unusually heavy and widespread rains last spring delayed planting and made it difficult for more farmers to enter fields in the contest.
Participants must install a flowmeter on the well serving the contest field. The flowmeter is sealed by contest officials to make sure all the water supplied to the field is recorded.
“Each entrant has a supervisor who is usually a county agent, NRCS technician or staff member,” said Henry. “The grower makes all the irrigation decisions, and the amount of water applied and the yields are recorded at harvest.”
The 2019 winners are (1) Corn: Karl Garner, producer from Wynne in Cross County, Ark.; (2) Rice: John Allen McGraw, producer from Star City in Lincoln County; and (3) Soybeans: James Wray, producer from Payneway in Poinsett County.
For Wray the win was especially gratifying, considering what happened to the field he entered in the first year of the contest in 2018.
“Last year at harvest-time we just had a ton of rain,” said Wray who set a state soybean yield record of 118.8 bushels per acre in 2016. “It came right before we were supposed to harvest, and it decimated the crop.
“This year we had a dry fall, and we were able to get in when we needed to and have a timely harvest.”
Wray harvested an average of 112.5 bushels per acre on the irrigation yield contest field. He applied 6.5 inches of irrigation water per acre and received 19.6 inches of rainfall. His irrigation efficiency rating was 4.3 bushels per acre.
“Working with Greg Simpson all year was very eye-opening to me,” he said. “Apparently, I have always watered way too much. If the soybeans had that silver tinting across them, as they say, it was time to water.” (Simpson is irrigation program associate with the university.)
“Several times this year I called Greg and told him I need to water, I need to water,” said Wray. “His response was, ‘No you don’t, you have plenty of water.’ I turned the pump on on every field except the contest field, and it turned out to be the best field. We’ve learned a lot these last two years working with moisture sensors and learning to trust them.”
Clint Boles, a producer from Wynne in Cross County and the third-place finisher in the soybean category, echoed Wray’s comments. (Becton Bell, the second place winner in soybeans, was unable to attend the presentation.)
“Soil sensors are magnificent if you figure out that time and that range to get started watering — they are excellent,” said Boles, who said he first wanted to give credit to God for making his farming career possible. “If you do not have Pipe Planner, it would make sense to have that on your farming operation.”
Karl Garner, a producer also from Wynne who finished first in the corn category of the Arkansas Irrigation Yield Contest, said the 2019 competition was his second year of using soil moisture sensors.
“I called my irrigation guy every two days, telling him ‘we have to water,’” said Garner. “He said no. A week later we still hadn’t watered. If I can tell you anything today, it’s to get a sensor, get it in the ground and learn to trust it. The easiest way to conserve water is to turn that well off and not turn it on.”
Several other growers harvested more corn in their contest fields than Garner, but Garner had the highest irrigation efficiency rating of 11.4 bushels of corn per inch of water. (He harvested 222 bushels per acre after applying a total of 1.5-acre inches of water in the contest field. The field received 18 inches of rain.)
“What we’re doing is not a yield contest,” Simpson said. “Each year at harvest we’ve had people who were disappointed when they did well economically and had high yields, but they didn’t win the contest.
“Our number is not just yield; it’s bushels per inch of water, as well,” he said. “We measure the yield, certainly, but we also measure the rainfall from emergence to maturity. This year it rained so much we got tired of talking about it. We had too many days with rain.”
He said contest officials had hoped to expand the number of entries in 2019. “But you heard the words ‘prevented planting’ so many times this year. It had an impact on planting dates and yields, and it also affected our contest entries.”
On a positive note, “the irrigation efficiency numbers for the 2019 winners were higher than those for the 2018 winners,” he said. “Somehow we are expanding the limits of what’s happening here.”
This year’s winners of the corn and soybean categories received $10,000 in cash while the rice winner was awarded an $11,000 seed tote credit. Second place winners for corn and soybeans received $3,000, and the second-place rice winner earned a $6,000 gift from the Mars Corp., and the third-place winners in corn and soybeans $1,000 each.
They also received flowmeters, soil moisture meters and other cash prizes from irrigation suppliers and other sponsors of the contest.
“So over $60,000 went out the door today with our contest winners,” said Henry.