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Gated-Pipe Irrigation Wanes in Nebraska

March 14, 2013
By: Nate Birt, Top Producer Deputy Managing Editor google + 
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It’s not hard to see why gated pipes are getting the pink slip. As farm incomes grow and drought conditions persist, producers increasingly have the capital necessary to install more efficient irrigation equipment in the form of center pivots.

Doing so can improve planting practices, conserve water and reduce in-field labor from as many as 12 days to as few as two.

"When they can see a return, they’re willing to make the investment," says David Ford, irrigation division manager with Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District. The district represents the largest surface-water irrigation project in the state, delivering water to 110,000 acres in south-central Nebraska.

The district manages just under 1,200 accounts, with each account averaging 91 acres. More than two-thirds of its growers produce corn, and other local crops include soybeans, alfalfa and wheat.

Nebraska farmer Phil High and his family grow soybeans on roughly 4,500 acres, 90% of which are irrigated. The farm has been aggressive at transitioning from gated pipe to pivots since 1980, and that activity has continued to the present thanks to growing incomes, water savings and evened-out yields.

Today, roughly 75% of High’s land is irrigated with pivots and only 25% is irrigated with gated pipe.

"It gives you the ability to chemigate or fertigate, which we do both of," High says. "That’s not a choice in gravity. And it just comes down to labor savings also. We’ve actually got less people farming more just because center pivot replaces a lot of that labor that we do with gated pipe."

This year, Ford anticipates further adoption of center-pivot systems in his district. The move away from gated pipes began in the 1970s but has increased rapidly over the last decade thanks to growth in farm incomes and incentive programs at the local and federal levels.

"As we go into 2013, probably just over half of our acres will be served with center pivot," Ford says.

Ten years ago, the district managed 200 center-pivot accounts. Now, it handles more than 400. Roughly 130 of those were added in the last four years, and 43 center pivots alone came online in 2012, representing 10% of the total pivots in operation.

Money isn’t the only factor for farmers. Technological advances have made pivots a rational alternative to pipes.

Consider the changes that have happened in the district’s 70-plus years of operation. In the beginning, farmers dug a ditch along the end of a canal connecting to the river. They nailed together 4 pieces of lath to place in a secondary ditch to control the water going down the furrow.

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