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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.

"It was a huge job to irrigate a field with that kind of thing," Ford says. Farmers then converted their irrigation to siphon tubes, which eliminated the need of the secondary ditch. Dams made of canvas or plastic were used to regulate the water level in their farm lateral that allowed the siphons tubes to work properly.

But for all of that forward progress, gated-pipe systems aren’t perfect.

For one thing, they require land that slopes. Water is pumped to the surface at the upper end of a field. It travels through pipes that are between 8" and 10" in diameter. Inside the pipe is a plastic gate with rubber seals placed at 20" increments. Selected gates are then opened, releasing water downhill between crop rows.

That results in ineffiency, Ford says. In general, about 50% of the water used in a gated-pipe system gets used by crops. Remaining water is lost through runoff, evaporation and leeching beneath the root zone.

After eight to 12 hours, the farmer returns, verifies that the crops have been sufficiently watered, and walks uphill to shut off that gate and open the gate for the next group of rows. A farmer with about 130 acres of land might spend 10 to 12 days irrigating a single field.

"He’s spending a lot of his day just irrigating," Ford says. "With center pivots, as long as they’re running, you can drive by and see that they’re running."

By contrast, crops irrigated with a center-pivot system generally use about 85% of the water being distributed. Pivot irrigation also allows farmers to activate herbicides with greater precision and to delay water flow to complement rain events.

The biggest hurdle to pivot conversion is the cost of implementing a system. But growing incomes coupled with a tendency to investment in their business means farmers are more likely than ever to upgrade their irrigation technology.

Ford’s irrigation district is based in Holrege, Neb., and that city is no exception: The city of 5,400 people has four center-pivot dealers, all of whom have stayed busy for the past several years.

While it costs roughly $250 to $300 per acre to install a new center pivot, High says, the irrigation towers don’t lose value over time. Instead, they become fixed assets. In addition to his ongoing pivot conversions, High plans to install underground drip tape this year in some of his smaller fields to further conserve water.

"We have got to be good stewards of the land and the resources, and using less is hopefully saving for the future," he says.

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