Irrigation Makes a Splash in Yield

October 22, 2016 02:30 AM

A 110-acre reservoir, five pumps and 18 pivots net a big return on investment

Annie Dee asked no questions when she was offered a trial run on a Massey Ferguson combine in 2011. Free harvesting hours; 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 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 the most energy efficient irrigation setup in the U.S.

Today, Dee River Ranch features a whole-farm irrigation system. Fed by a 110-acre reservoir, five 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. Since 2011, corn profits range from $144 to $1,093 per acre over non-irrigated ground and soybean profits hover between $115 to $215 per acre over non-irrigated ground. Total return on investment: 31%.

Prior to 2011, Dee fought grinding yield battles on her east-central Alabama soil, typically hitting 100 bu. to 120 bu. per acre in poor years, and 150 bu. to 160 bu. per acre in good years. 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 bu. I knew we had the soil fertility for 300 bu. per acre under irrigation,” she says.

In 2011, Dee River built a 25-acre reservoir to irrigate 310 acres, in tandem with a cattle pond to water 114 acres. A 125-bu. 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.

“Irrigation brings a form of stability to a farmer,” Mast says. “Her initial reaction to the plans had been small steps, but yield jumps eventually mean money in the bank. 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,” Dee explains. “I had to have yield to pad against low prices.”

River, creek, wells or reservoir: Where to pull water? All numbers pointed toward a reservoir to capture a potential of 56" to 60" of rain per year. Dee’s brother, Mike Dee, handles irrigation and grain handling at Dee River, 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 2012, construction of pipes, pivots and wire began. The system was ready for the 2013 growing season. 

One corner system and 18 center pivots varying in length from 206' to 2,023' are fed by five pumps. Remote control technology is used to manage pivots and pumps through a broadband network—a turnkey solution with remote access. Mike 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.

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 divides 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 moisture sensors placed at four separate depths to provide a stream of alerts and emails to track the moisture profile. Dee also calculates water needs based on growth stage and scouts fields throughout the growing season.

New yields have trumped old math at Dee River Ranch, with corn yields rising to more than 300 bu. per acre. The extra yield forced Dee to double grain handling capacity from 125,000 bu. to 250,000 bu. In wet years, the 18-pivot system has pushed yield, and in dry years, it has been the difference maker. 

“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, farmers researchers and other visitors stop at Dee River to see the irrigation system and reservoir. “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.”  

To learn more about Annie Dee and Dee River Ranch, read the September 2016 cover story in Top Producer magazine at


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