Pioneer in drip irrigation looks to hone productivity with thinner tape at shallow depths
Every year, Nick McMichen bled away yield on two small underperforming fields beyond pivot range. Yield and economics are telltale factors on a farm, and the brutal pair spurred McMichen to action in 2000, when he started drip irrigation. Seventeen years later, McMichen’s investments have paid big returns and he’s set to install more drip technology.
Starting with a 17-acre pivot corner in 2000, McMichen laid 14-mil Netafim tape 12” deep and followed a year later with an adjacent 18-acre field at 10” deep. With overall costs of $1,200 per acre, the drip fields outpaced yield on center pivot acreage. The system quickly paid for itself through a succession of near 300-bu. corn, 3.5-bale cotton and 80-plus bushel soybeans.
“Drip has brought a 40% to 50% return each year,” McMichen says.
Farming in northeast Alabama’s Cherokee County, McMichen, 46, is chairman of the area soil and water conservation district, and grows corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat across 3,000 rolling acres. He intends to add another 30 acres of drip before the 2017 planting season.
In 2000, McMichen was among the first Alabama producers to install subsurface drip. With engineering specs, filter design and pump system in hand, he installed the drip and connected the puzzle pieces.
“It was scary to do something brand new to my ground. I think some people thought I lost my mind, but I was adamant,” he says. “I knew the transformative power of water.”
Bad installation creates a bad experience, and McMichen pored over the details to ensure long-term success. He physically worked on every facet of installation and forced himself to learn the overall system from start to finish: “We zeroed in on detail and spent extra time learning. Seventeen years later, I’m still reaping dividends.”
McMichen’s acreage was on 38" rows and he buried drip tape on 76" centers. Beyond water, he says fertigation allowed him to spoon-feed nitrogen to crops and get maximum return for fertilizer dollars. However, McMichen has changed row patterns twice and lost the functionality of fertigation. With the upcoming drip addition, he’ll place thinner tape at shallow depths and get back to practicing fertigation. Without hesitation, McMichen is aiming for 400-bu. corn, 4-bale cotton and 100-bu. soybeans.
“We feel shallow surface drip will be the answer for us. It’s strictly because of the labor intensity of installation. We can put shallow surface drip in at 40% of the cost,” he explains.
The lower cost of shallow drip is countered by a lower life span, probably less than eight years, says Eddie McGriff, who covers 10 counties in northeast Alabama as an Extension agent for Auburn University. “Most growers have gone 10" to 12" deep, and we’re now exploring 2" to 3" deep with thinner tape,” he says.
How will shallow tubing cope with roots in non-row crops? Will solid-planted wheat roots grow into tubing and clog emitters? “We’re still tackling questions,” McGriff adds.
For irregular fields that don’t fit well with pivots, McGriff believes drip can be ideal and says deeply laid tubing might last up to 30 years.
Rather than moving across big acres too quickly, McMichen first focuses on the productivity of small acres. “Irrigation done correctly is crucial. With drip, you maximize what you can squeeze out of an acre,” McMichen adds. “Start small and learn because the sky is the limit for drip.”