For a farmer who’s considering installing irrigation for the first time or expanding, there are several factors to consider, but first and foremost are water supply and the type of irrigation system to be used.

“The biggest issue we have to consider with water supply is making sure we have enough water during the growing season, especially during the latter part of the season when it’s most critical, such as the tasseling stage of corn,” says John Fulton, Auburn University Extension Specialist — Biosystems and Engineering.

“It’s typically the driest part of the year, and it’s the maximum water usage for the plant. So it’s critical that we have an adequate water supply at that time.”

Growers must consider the potential for significant water use with any irrigation system, says Fulton.

(For a look at how one Alabama farming operation is using irrigation, see Alabama's Dee River Ranch: state of the art irrigation technology on display).

“In Alabama, we commonly have droughty growing conditions, and corn or cotton could require anywhere from 1/10 inch starting out to 3/10 or 4/10 inch of water, depending on the growth stage. Growers need to ask themselves if they can supply that amount of water adequately and at a frequency to maintain or maximize our yields,” he says.

It’s important to factor in the crops you’re growing and the water-use curves of each, says Fulton.

“You also need to look at the type of irrigation you want to install and at the water supply or storage you would need.”

Alabama is blessed with adequate annual rainfall, but much of it occurs during the winter months, he says.

“The important thing is having that supply available when you need it during the growing season. There are a lot of options out there. Unfortunately, Alabama is at a disadvantage because we can’t always drill a 100 or 200-foot well and begin to pump 500 to 1,000 gallons per minute.

“Groundwater is very limited in many places in Alabama, so we have to look at other ways to make it economical. There are ways to gain access to groundwater and drill wells, but it’s very expensive.

“A lot of times, you’re talking about a 600 to 1,000-foot well, and you could spend from $20,000 to $80,000 just to get the well in place, and that doesn’t include the pump and other expenses.”

If a farmer is planning on drilling for water, Fulton recommends hiring a reputable, experienced well driller.

“They’ll drill small test wells and look for the water, and they can see the depth and flow rate that can be expected for irrigation.