Brinkley, Ark., farmer Jim Carroll draws from experience and new technologies to improve his land, lower his water costs, and increase corn and soybean productivity.
Jimel Farms is nearly 100% irrigated with a maze of underground pipes to transfer ground water from pumps to fields. "I feel like we're moving backwards if my brother, Jon, and I don't take a portion of our farm budget each year and dedicate it to improving the land. We've been land-forming some of our ground, and it has increased the flowability of water down rows," Carroll says.
Experience plays a role too. "I know things about this farm you won't find in a book. I've walked these fields countless times while hunting. I know where the low- and high-production zones are and the sections of fields where it is difficult to move water across efficiently."
Jon participated in the Grow for Green contest in 2018 and won prize money they used to purchase moisture meters. He won again last year, so they will purchase a few more. "I'd like to have them every mile, so we can get an average reading across the entire operation," Carroll says. "The meters have shown us we were overwatering soybeans, which was holding back plant development and overall plant health."
The brothers averaged 57 bushels an acre in 2019, with one test plot topping 66 bushels. Twenty-two miles of poly-pipe costs them around $10 an acre. "That's not counting the cost of water, labor, and fuel," Carroll says. "Water alone costs between $30 and $40 an acre and that's too much. We're starting to see costs drop a little, thanks to land-forming, moisture meters and other efforts."
When Carroll graduated from college in 1974, the groundwater level on the farm was around 56 feet. Representatives from USDA periodically check well depths, which are around 45 feet today. "Nearly 40% of our farm floods each season, so we've learned how to manage water," Carroll says. "We have had so much rain the last two seasons, recharge through percolation seems to have our aquifer at a static level."
The brothers irrigate with reclaimed water from re-lift pumps installed at the bottoms of a few fields. "The re-lift pumps pick up water from field tops and circulate it back via underground pipes," Carroll says. "It reduces the time we put on our pumps and increases our water use efficiency.
Arkansas farmers report annual water use to the NRCS district office after each growing season. NRCS uses a water use formula based on the number of in-season irrigation events.
"I installed digital flow meters on some of our wells because Jon and I believe the estimates we were submitting weren't accurate," Carroll says. "If we're irrigating and know rain is coming, we shut off the pumps, but that is still counted as a full irrigation event by NRCS. Our flow meters allow me to obtain more accurate readings and reduce groundwater runoff in drainage ditches."
Much of the land around Brinkley is protected under environmental regulations, so effective drainage has always been an issue. Carroll works with a project to improve the Little Piney drainage ditch that carries water south from Brinkley.
"After we cleared 6 miles of logs, beaver dams, and other obstructions from the lower end of it, it's made a huge difference," Carroll says. "We don't have the established drainage infrastructure in our area like they have in areas like Earle and Hughes, Ark."
The Carroll brothers understand the moisture retention value of cover crops and have tried to use them in the past. "Because we live under a goose flyway, we would be wasting money on cover crops because the geese would eat them," Carroll says. "We quit growing wheat seven years ago because of the incredible numbers of geese. I liked growing wheat because it occupied 500 acres of our land I didn't have to worry about until spring or early summer."
Carroll's father put the first well on the farm in 1951, the year Jim was born. "That's how long we've been working with and learning to manage water," Carroll said.