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Furrow irrigation: Elevate the run for maximum efficiency

Farmer customizes irrigation elevation, saving time and labor.

Whitney Haigwood, Staff Writer

April 29, 2024

6 Min Read
White poly irrigation tubing on a custom-built elevation stand in a furrow irrigated corn field.
Less is more: Arkansas farmer Clay Smith relies on customized ramps in his furrow irrigation runs. He calculates heights and field placement of the elevation stands with Pipe Planner software, maximizing his irrigation efficiency while also saving time and labor.Clay Smith

Five years ago, Clay Smith “upped” his furrow irrigation game, to save time and labor while also maximizing irrigation efficiency across his acreage. He did so by increasing the height of the elevation buildups in his poly pipe design on his family farm in Greene County, just west of Paragould in the town of Walcott.

Now that the elevation buildups are higher, Smith needs fewer of them to regulate the water pressure in each poly tubing irrigation run. At 29 years old, he is interested in incorporating technology on the farm and attributes his success to the use of Pipe Planner, proprietary software offered by Delta Plastics.

He learned to use the program with the help of then USDA-NRCS Irrigation Specialist, Katie Womack who served the Greene County Conservation District. “Katie helped us ten-fold in setting fields up correctly that are extremely hard to water,” Smith said. Womack, still with the USDA-NRCS is now serving Craighead County.

Smith continued, “Before using Pipe Planner, it was a fight to get it done and get it halfway right. Now, the program shows me what size hole to punch, where to put the buildup, and it has helped us tremendously ever since we started using it.”

Leveled fields with elevation differences

Most fields on Smith’s family farm do not have a level turnrow. He explained that their farmland is near Crowley’s Ridge, a 200-mile natural division that originates in Missouri and runs through the upper Delta of Arkansas.

Related:5 tips to avoid busted poly pipe

Years ago, his dad and grandfather leveled the fields on a cross slope to grow rice. While this saved them from moving as much dirt, it also created a big elevation change on the upper turn row.

“The elevation difference is not visible to the naked eye, but when it comes to land contour, there is quite a bit of difference on the upper turnrow. So, if you just lay the poly pipe out there with no restrictions, all the water will run to the end of the tube and blow the pipe out,” Smith said.

For years, the Smiths relied on a method to alleviate the water pressure. Smith recalled helping his dad and grandpa build restrictions along the irrigation runs. The laborious task started by driving a spill rod into the ground with a sledgehammer. They drove 150 total spill rods over a couple of hundred acres, every summer.

The rods served as stakes. From there, the Smiths would slide a piece of PVC pipe beneath the poly tubing and attach it to each stake with chains to create elevation buildups.

Smith said, “It was very labor intensive and not very fun. When you get into June and the ground is as hard as rock, it is tough driving those stakes into the ground. If there was a problem and you blew the pipe out, you would have to start over.”

Related:3 Pivot irrigation strategies for the Midsouth

Then, everything changed in 2020, when Womack taught Smith the ins and outs of Pipe Planner.

Technology boosts efficiency

Pipe Planner is a computerized hole selection software that helps farmers design their irrigation runs with the correct size of poly tubing based on the field layout. It also considers the water pressure and calculates the best hole size and spacing to punch along the pipe.

Mike Hamilton, Extension irrigation instructor at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, has worked with computerized hole selection software since the earliest days of Phaucet, a software program developed by the USDA-NRCS in Missouri.

When Pipe Planner came along, it leveled the playing field for furrow irrigation. Hamilton explained, “Irrigation is simply a math equation. Pipe Planner takes all the components into consideration.

“There are a lot of variables to consider. Using Pipe Planner helps us take the variables out so we can get an even flow in our furrows to reach the tail-ditch at the same time. When we started using Pipe Panner, our irrigation efficiency went way up on our furrow irrigated designs because we were able to get the math right from the start.”

One of those critical components is knowing the elevation of the tubing run across the field, even on precision leveled acres that might appear flat. Hamilton emphasized that a 6 to 8-inch fall or rise across a quarter mile can make a big difference in water pressure on those precision leveled acres.

The elevation can be determined with traditional surveying equipment or the use of an RTK drone. From there, data is entered into a standard spreadsheet program, like Microsoft Excel, and the file can be imported into Pipe Planner.

By entering the field elevation into Pipe Planner, the program will tell you where to place elevation buildups along your irrigation run. On the Smith farm, this meant higher buildups spaced further apart.

Ingenuity elevates irrigation

Smith credited the idea of customized elevation ramps to his father. The Smiths contacted a local metal fabrication shop, H & R Metal Fabrication, for the job. Now, instead of manually installing 150 restrictions, they only have to place 20 of the customized metal stands.

White poly tubing on a custom irrigation stand in a furrow irrigated corn field

“If Pipe Planner showed we needed the elevation stands to be 30 inches, then that is what we made them,” Smith said.

He said the biggest benefit is the savings in time and labor. There is no longer a need to break out the sledgehammer in the scorching summer heat. Instead, Smith knows where to place the stands and can rely on a backhoe or skid steer to set up his irrigation runs.

“It is much less labor intensive, and that is the number one beneficial factor we found. We leave some ramps out in the field. Others we set off the field road exactly where they are supposed to go. Whenever we lay the poly pipe, we pick up the stand and put it in place,” Smith said.

While he does not recall the cost of the custom designed stands, he is sure they have already paid for themselves.

“As much as they have saved us, I would say they paid for themselves in the first year on labor intensity alone,” Smith said, adding there is also a water savings factor, since the water runs out uniformly across the rows, keeping them from running the well all night to fully irrigate the field.

Hamilton commented on the ingenuity, noting that farmers have historically relied on barrels or half barrels to add elevation to their irrigation runs.

“Our growers are as adaptive as any creature on the planet. They are making their own designs. It is amazing what they are coming up with. I like these larger buildups. I would rather put out less, because at the end of the year that is less to take out.”

Additionally, Hamilton said Arkansas now has 10 irrigation water management specialists. He along with USDA-NRCS Irrigation Engineer, Rodney Wright, have trained these specialists across the Arkansas Delta to help growers with irrigation water management.

“It has been a great partnership between the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture and the Arkansas NRCS,” Hamilton said. “And don’t forget your county Extension agents across the entire state that we train as well, because irrigation water management is just that important.”

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