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Liquid Line Items

August 24, 2013
By: Nate Birt, Top Producer Deputy Managing Editor google + 
soybean irrigation

Plan for adequate irrigation resources next season

Going swimming requires preparation. You need the proper attire, a towel and sunscreen. Before you dive in, you have to measure the water to make sure it’s deep enough.

The same is true when budgeting your irrigation investment for next season. You need tools for maintenance, a good dealer and an understanding of local water restrictions. Forget to factor those into the equation and you’re likely to get hurt by diving in too deep.

"Unless you have a windshield wiper center pivot, you’ve got a power unit and a pump that somehow has to get water to the center of the field," says Dan O’Brien, Extension agricultural economist at Kansas State University.

Ideally, farmers should plan their irrigation needs in the fall, install the system in the winter and have it ready to run at planting.

"You need to go through a thoughtful process of evaluation and make the decision not in a panic mode. You’re not going to be able to install an irrigation system in a drought to save a crop," explains Larry Curtis, a former biosystems engineering professor at Auburn University.

The biggest mistake a producer can make is to underestimate the resources required to dig trenches, install underground pipes, connect to an energy source and more.

"We, in general, haven’t seen a decrease in the cost of pivot systems," says O’Brien, who co-authors a yearly cost-return budget for irrigated corn land in north-central Kansas.

For ground yielding 150 bu. to 190 bu., he projects the following per-acre costs:

  • Irrigation system: $476
  • Well, pump and gearhead: $238
  • Power unit and meter: $66

The budget projects the region’s farmers will pay close to $100 in additional per-acre costs such as labor, fuel, repairs, depreciation and interest. Still, agronomic data suggest the irrigation investment has had a good return for farmers in places such as Kansas.

"Once the corn crop gets to the vegetative stage, an extra 1" of water, in general, will add as much as 12 bu. to 15 bu. per acre," O’Brien notes.

The Hultgren family of Raymond, Minn., has found that planning makes the irrigation investment worthwhile.

"We look for a seven-year payback," explains Duane Hultgren, who farms 4,500 acres with his wife and two sons. Farmers in the region lost their crops to drought in three of the past seven years. That reality, coupled with the ability to push corn yields from 70 bu. per acre to above 200 bu. under irrigation, made the decision to invest $1,800 per acre easier.

"We can’t afford to farm it otherwise," says Hultgren, who raises sugar beets, corn, kidney beans, soybeans, sweet corn, peas and alfalfa. The family has six pivots in operation and is adding four more on their sandier northern 1,500 acres.

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - September 2013
RELATED TOPICS: Machinery, Irrigation, Production

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