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Red Bayou Bounty

July 27, 2011
By: Jeanne Bernick, Top Producer Editor
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Though it’s labor-intensive, Louisiana farmer Ryan Kirby uses poly-pipe irrigation because it thoroughly saturates the soil.  

Matching irrigation and fertilizer to the ecosystem creates sustainable profits.

The Red River slowly and smoothly snakes its way around the edges of Ryan Kirby’s farm. Named for the red sandstone that lines its watershed, the 1,400-mile river nourishes the fragile ecosystem and alluvial soils of northwest Louisiana. Yet much like a serpent, it has a nasty side. Flooding, erosion, irrigation battles and concerns about farm inputs flowing into the Gulf of Mexico has some farmers cursing Ol’ Red.

Not Kirby. Shortly after college, he followed the river to where his great-grandfather planted cotton in the 1940s. Kicking the red dirt, Kirby looked out over miles of drainage ditches and set his mind to find more sustainable production systems to preserve his family farm.

"Every farmer should work with the local environment, not against it," says Kirby, who with his father owns UNI Plantation, a 2,500-acre farm producing corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat near Belcher, La.

He believes irrigation is the best form of crop insurance in the South. When he returned to farm in 2004, only 100 acres were under irrigation, and the crops—along with profits—were drying up. Kirby has expanded irrigation to cover 1,700 acres, drilling 30 wells that draw water from earth fed by the Red River.

A degree in petroleum engineering and time in the oil and gas industry gave Kirby his foundation in sustainability. While some might argue the oil industry is the last in line when it comes to sustainability, Kirby says his experience in the industry gives him perspective on the environment. Since returning home, he has improved water management, initiated precision agriculture practices and reduced runoff.

His efforts have made UNI Plantation more sustainable, both environmentally and financially, increasing profits by 30% in the last five years. It’s why Kirby was named the 2011 winner of the Tomorrow’s Top Producer Sustainability Award, a contest for farmers 35 and under that is sponsored by Bayer CropScience. Kirby was awarded a Toughbook computer and a trip to Farm Journal Corn College.
Irrigating for Profits. While much of the nation suffered from too much water this past spring, northern Louisiana farmers have been dealing with years of drought. The local farming community raises 20% of the state’s cotton crop, yet Louisiana lags behind other states in irrigation use and efficiency, according to Louisiana State University. This is in part due to concerns about groundwater quality and higher pumping costs.

Now that cotton and other commodity prices have climbed higher, the numbers line up in favor of irrigation, Kirby says. "Soybeans on poorer soils have seen the biggest yield boosts with irrigation," he adds. Overall, on irrigated acres Kirby has gained an average yield bump of 40 bu. more for corn, 30 bu. for soybeans and 300 lb. for cotton.

Kirby started investing in poly-pipe irrigation as soon as he came back to the farm. This form of irrigation does a better job than center pivots of thoroughly saturating the soil profile, but it is more labor-intensive; Kirby must lay the poly pipe every year and swap the settings on a 12- to 24-hour rotation. Much of his land is broken into small fields that had already been precision-leveled for drainage, so poly pipe was a better option than center pivots.

Mindful of the area’s delicate water situation, Kirby uses variable hole sizes in his poly pipe to account for changing elevation and row lengths. This can save up to 25% on water, electricity and diesel costs.

"Irrigation expansion has more than paid off with today’s high grain prices," Kirby says.

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Tuning into precision agriculture initially saved fertilizer costs, but now Ryan Kirby is finding out it also helps with long-term planning and boosts yield. PHOTO: Neil Johnson

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FEATURED IN: Top Producer - Summer 2011

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