Annie Dee asked no questions when offered a trial run on a Massey-Ferguson combine in 2011. Free harvesting hours and corn in the trailer? No debate. Alongside Black Prairie Tractor general manager Rodney Mast, she climbed inside the box, got comfortable with the controls, and began rolling. Dee was a willing captive to the art of a fine sales pitch, but she didn’t know the item for sale wasn’t a combine.
As Dee chewed through a lane of dryland corn, Mast pulled out a notebook filled with drawings of her entire farm, overlaid with a succession of circular patterns. Mast had put a pivot irrigation system to paper, a precise match to Dee’s fields. With September sun baking ground at Dee River Ranch in Aliceville, Ala., Dee made a final combine pass, not realizing the significance of the notebook’s contents: It contained a primitive blueprint for perhaps the most energy-efficient irrigation setup in the United States.
Today, Dee River Ranch features a whole-farm irrigation system designed by Lindsay Corporation. Fed by a 110-acre reservoir, five Watertronics 150-hp pumps with variable frequency drive control technology supply water to 18 pivots and one corner unit across 2,800 acres of corn and soybeans. The bin-busting results since 2011? Corn profits ranging from $144-$1,093 per acre over non-irrigated ground, and soybean profits hovering between $115-215 per acre over non-irrigated ground.
Total return on investment: 31%.
Prior to 2011, Dee fought grinding yield battles on her west-central Alabama soil, typically hitting 100-120 bu. per acre in poor years, and 150-160 bu. per acre in good years. She had no water and no control, particularly during dry periods. Long-term, the low yields were financially crippling, and multiple agronomists believed the math was fixed: Drop in a pivot and possibly reach 180 bu. per acre - not enough yield to justify the payout. Dee didn’t flinch.
“Forget 180," she says. "I knew we had the soil fertility for 300 bu. per acre under irrigation."
In 2011, Dee River Ranch built a 25-acre reservoir to irrigate 310 acres, in tandem with a cattle pond to water 114 acres. A 125-bushel leap in corn at $7 almost paid for the irrigation system costs in a single season. Shaken to the core, Dee sought out Mast and his notebook packed with plans.
“I was ready to go big,” she says.
Mast points out that irrigation brings a "form of stability" to a farmer.
“Her initial reaction to the plans had been small steps, but yield jumps eventually mean money in the bank," he says. "Stability and yield probably drove their decision.”
Yet, reach into the coffers and commit to financial risk based on a single year of fantastic yield jumps? Dee stepped on the gas.
“Corn prices were high and we knew the strong market wouldn’t last. A drop in corn prices actually meant I wouldn’t be able to afford not to irrigate,” sheexplains. “I had to have yield to pad against low prices.”
River, creek, wells, or reservoir: Where to pull water? When Lindsay put pencil to paper and broke down the efficiency options, all numbers pointed toward a reservoir to capture a potential of 56” to 60” inches of rain per year. Dee’s brother, Mike Dee, handles irrigation and grain handling at Dee River Ranch, and he’d long envisioned a major reservoir on the farm. Essentially, two hillsides were connected with a levee built from the dirt within the bowl to form the reservoir. In fall of 2012, Lindsay began construction of pipe, pivots, and wire, and the system was ready for the 2013 growing season: 18 pivots varying in length from 206’ to 2,023’ and one corner system.
Lindsay touts the design as the most efficient irrigation system in U.S. agriculture. Five pumps feed 18 center pivots mounted with Growsmart FieldBOSS control panels. Lindsay’s FieldNET is used to control all pivots and pumps through the ezWireless broadband network – a turnkey solution with remote access. Mike remotely controls the system by smartphone and tablet, or through manual operation at the pump station. All 10,000 acres of Dee River Ranch are connected wirelessly by an 80’ base station tower providing 20 square miles of coverage.
FieldNet’s remote control and monitor telemetry system, coupled with Watertronics pumps, has also made a big difference, according to John Atkinson, director of Key Accounts at Lindsay.
"Dee River Ranch showcases the cutting-edge technology of a durable, rugged irrigation system and high-tech controls," he says. "Annie Dee and her brother Mike have documented higher yields while reducing labor, water and energy costs.”
Initially, Dee was in favor of a single pump due to lower costs up front, but long-term energy efficiency demanded five pumps. Variable frequency pumps respond to computer calculations when multiple pivots are running. Turning on a single pivot only requires a single pump cranking at a minimal level of power to provide adequate water. Individual pump times are recorded and the computer automatically passes hours between pumps to keep them all at the same wear level. In the future, as normal wear requires change, all five pumps will be replaced at once.
“The pump station is the most integral part of the system,” Mast explains. “Most people focus entirely on the pivot and water, but everything hinges on the right pumps and the technology that controls them. The energy costs over the next 40 years will make all the difference.”
Irrigation timing is based on a three-way approach, starting with Growsmart moisture sensors placed at four separate depths to provide a stream of alerts and emails to track the moisture profile. In addition, Dee calculates water needs based on growth stage, and maintains a heavy in-field presence, eyeballing corn and soybeans throughout the season.
All taken, the original 25-acre reservoir and 110-acre reservoir have yielded a 31% ROI. New yields have trumped old math at Dee River Ranch, with corn exploding to over 300 bu. per acre. The extra yield forced Dee to double grain handling capacity from 125,000 bushels to 250,000 bushels. In wet years, the 18-pivot system has pushed yield, and in dry years, it’s been the difference maker. Money well spent, particularly considering the alternative.
“This irrigation system has given us the ability to know we can make a better crop with better weather, but also be sustainable during bad weather,” Dee says. “Over time, we were going out of business without irrigation and higher yields.”
Roughly 50 times each year, visitors stop at Dee River to see the irrigation system and reservoir. Producers, researchers, Extension personnel, and agricultural association reps all seek out the ultimate watering hole tucked in the hills of Alabama.
“We even get foreign farmers wanting to take a look and learn how we’re watering out crops,” Dee adds. “I might call it our little irrigation wonder of the world.”