“I’m a control freak, I guess,” comments Kelly Garrett, an Arion, Iowa, producer. He’s talking about the key reason why he invested in drip irrigation for part of his operation. “Coming out of the drought of 2012, there were too many things that were out of my control.”
He realizes you can’t mitigate all risks, but for 370 acres of his cropland, he took the plunge to install drip tape on several fields that he would rotate between corn and soybeans. Garrett is one of four farmers Farm Progress contacted to discuss drip irrigation and its use in a row crop situation.
Subsurface drip irrigation is technology that gained initial traction in high-value crops in areas with reduced access to water. Israeli producers pioneered the idea of laying durable tape underground where water could be pushed through and percolate through the soil to crop roots.
Today, there’s growing interest in the idea of using drip tape for commodity crops, and it goes beyond providing water to the crop. Fertigation isn’t a new idea for irrigators, but with subsurface drip irrigation (SDI) it’s possible to spoon-feed that crop throughout the season and deliver more than the usual N, P and K.
Farmers who install drip in fields often start either with a need for greater control of variables, or they already irrigate with center-pivot or flood systems but have fields that are too oddly shaped. That’s what Perry Galloway had for his operation. He’s in his seventh season with drip. Only a small portion of his 10,000-acre operation has drip irrigation.
“I had a couple of fields that weren’t suited for land leveling for furrow irrigation, or any kind of flood, and they were not shaped for center pivot,” Galloway says. “So, I looked at it as a way to get these oddly shaped fields irrigated.” His Gregory, Ark., operation raises corn and soybeans, and he’s noted for his competition yields. But it’s a small part of his operation, amounting to just 120 acres — though they’re some of his best-producing.
It didn’t start out that way. “We have sandy soils and they drain well; we’re always just a few days from a drought,” he says. “That first field I installed drip in was one I drive by every day. If it didn’t rain, I was looking at a dead field, and I couldn’t take it.”
The first installation was 80 acres; and at the time, the farm economy was good with higher prices. The $2,000-per-acre installation cost was a challenge, but he wanted higher yields. “That first field, if there was no rain, would produce less than 20 bushels per acre for soybeans and sometimes in the single digits,” he says. “I’ve made 100 bushels per acre on that field several times.”
YIELD RECORDS: The big challenge of topping 100 bushels per acre of soybeans is more realistic when the crop is spoon-fed nutrients and water throughout the growing season through a drip system.
Unlikely irrigation spot
Northern Illinois has its share of center-pivot systems, but in 2015, Dan Luepkes pioneered the use of SDI and laid in his first system. It was 100 acres, and in the second year he added another 100 acres. “We had planned for that with one controller and filter station supporting both fields,” the Oregon, Ill., producer says. “The reason I did it was because we have sandy ground and we use center-pivot irrigation. But for this farm, there was no pivot that would work on it because it was too irregular.”
And he’s pleased with his results. “We’ve turned one of my least productive fields into one of my most productive with drip. It’s been a good thing for me,” he says.
The key for these installations is the precision fertigation, which has gotten more targeted and easier to manage with the tech and tools offered by suppliers. But Luepkes doesn’t rely solely on the SDI system for his fertilizer program.
“We continue our upfront, intense, planter-applied nutrient program with row-applied nitrogen on the planter,” he says. “Then we top it off with the drip midseason.”
He has his lines laid in on 60-inch centers, and that early season fertilizer program is key to getting the crop off to a good start, including root development. “When the root masses get bigger, they can reach out to get to the drip lines by midseason — and we deliver nutrients through the lines.”
He explained that his farm sees that later-season applied nutrients are giving his crop a bigger boost, including delivering nitrogen and boron at tassel for corn. And what he’s learned from those drip lines he’s now putting to work through his center pivot, too. Later-applied nutrients can make a difference.
Luepkes has not only seen a yield bump, but also sees his name appearing consistently on yield contest charts as a top producer in Illinois, and nationally.
Installation and management
Drip irrigation tech has evolved. For Garrett in Iowa, who wanted more control, there was a challenge for his installation. “Most said I was crazy to install drip with my hills,” he says. “We turned to pressure-compensating tape, which was some extra expense, but it worked to counter the hills.”
And the tech keeps evolving. A common theme in talking with farmers using SDI is the need for higher management.
Galloway in Arkansas notes that he couldn’t manage his whole farm on the same level he manages his SDI ground. Yet the value produced on that single field, in a tough location, offered benefits.
For Kevin Matthews, who farms near Yadkinville, N.C., the SDI installation has been at work for seven years — and he’s been fine-tuning management ever since.
While farmers may hear about the big yield bump from SDI, Matthews cautions that you shouldn’t “expect the first year to blow the top off. You have to learn the system, when to water and when not to water. You can water too much,” he says.
The key knowledge is knowing your soil types and setting your watering zones in the SDI system by that information. “And set realistic yield goals,” he cautions. “The drip takes a little more management, and the key to success is in the design of the system. You have to work with a reputable dealer with specialists that understand how these systems work.”
Matthews, Galloway, Luepkes and Garrett are all boosting yields in their operations on fields where SDI has been installed. Farmers looking at ways to turn losing fields into winners may want to consider the potential of this technology for the future.
Considering SDI? Check these tips
Subsurface drip irrigation is a relatively new idea for row crop use. However, the concept isn’t that new. Kansas State University has done its share of work on the concept, including use of subsurface lines in fields that have been at work for more than two decades. If you’re considering the idea of installing an SDI system, here are some tips gleaned from Galloway, Matthews, Luepkes and Garrett.
• Have water available. No irrigation system works without available water. That sounds like common sense, but it’s critical to know your resources. Luepkes in Illinois notes that many farmers don’t have the water. Even in his case it was a challenge, which he solved by damming a small creek on his operation. Even though it created a 2-million-gallon reservoir, he’s been known to run it dry with his SDI system.
• Plan on added management. These operations have learned over time how to fine-tune their water and nutrient application through the drip. Matthews from North Carolina noted that SDI users will find they have more “depth” with the system because it can be more precise than pivots. “You can manage those zones and it gets easier,” he says. “But your dealer should know how to set zones up for different soil types.”
The lines need maintenance including cleaning. The filtration system will keep sand out, though plugging can happen — even with the nutrients you push into the system. Varmints have not been a big issue, but Iowa farmer Garrett said leaks are a big issue, admitting in his first year he probably caused more leaks through his early use than he’s seen since.
• Installation cost versus payback. Every one of these growers says the payback ranges from five to seven years, though timing can be an issue. For example, if you installed a drip system in 2011 ahead of the 2012 drought and saw a high yield even in the face of dry weather, the payback is accelerated. But Luepkes looks at the bigger picture on payback and value. “I try to make the point that you can have 100% return in the first year in one aspect — the asset,” he says. He notes that land that was worth $5,000 per acre dry after spending $2,000 per acre for the SDI installation is now work $10,000 per acre due to the installation and the higher proven yield on that ground. He says he doesn’t want to sell the farm, but it is a 100% payback in asset value.
The financial aspect is a challenge. Many bankers may not see value in the initial cost of the SDI installation, which can be higher than a center-pivot system. First-time installers all financed their systems creatively through operating loans or their own money. Savvy bankers are more up to speed once they see those yields; but if you’re in an area with little SDI, prepare to educate your banker.
• The dealer matters. One theme that came through from all four farmers is that a bad installation can be a real problem. From managing zones by soil type to helping set up the system for pressure, filtration and maintenance, a knowledgeable dealer is valuable. Netafim is the key supplier for these four farmers, who have seen solid success with their systems, and they offer uniform praise. For farmers seeking drip installation dealers, check references and talk with farmers they’ve worked with to learn about those installations before writing that first check.
The four operations featured here have a range of drip installations, from 60-inch centers to on-row systems. Some buried are 9 inches deep, others deeper. Part is determined by soil percolation rates and part by your farming practices. If tillage is part of your annual crop management, lines may be deeper; no tillers may have lines closer to the surface.