“There’s also the possibility of pulling water from a river or large stream that’s adjacent to your property as long as it’s flowing during the growing season and as long as you’re not having an environmental impact on the fish or wildlife in that body of water.”

Another option, says Fulton, is on-farm storage, whether it’s using existing ponds or constructed ponds or reservoirs that can then be used to supply water for irrigation.

“If you want to install two or three center pivots and water a larger area, you’d need a larger pond or multiple ponds to support the irrigation during the early season and not draw it down to the point of being dry when water is needed for critical crop stages.”

Water storage on the farm is now a proven irrigation technology, says Fulton, and the NRCS AWEP program has provided cost-share funds for developing ponds to be used in watering cropland.

(Alabama’s Mitch Lazenby has gotten into irrigation with on-farm water storage. To see his story visit Mitch Lazenby investing in irrigation for farm's future).

Investing in any type of irrigation requires a lot of capital, says Fulton, but many farmers are seeing a quick payback, especially with current commodity prices.

Most producers who have adopted irrigation for row crops are using center pivots, primarily because of efficiencies they provide, the area of coverage, and the costs when compared with other options, says Fulton.

“The idea is to sustain yields and manage risks. If you can maintain corn yields of 200 to 250 bushels per acre during drought years or maintain three-bale cotton, it can mean something significant for your operation.

“Normally when we talk about center pivots, we’re talking about being able to cover a crop about every three days. If you’re able to make only a partial turn, it might take more than three days.”

Another irrigation option is traveler guns or hose reels that fill in areas where center pivot might not work, says Fulton.

“They are cheaper from a capital investment standpoint, so growers may start out with those. But they are a 24/7 operation and can be very tiring and labor-intensive.

“Also, they’re high-pressure systems, so they’re not as efficient as center pivots. We’ve seen some furrow irrigation in Alabama, but it’s trickier because you have to have the correct soil types to support it. Secondly, you have to do some land-grading, which can be an expensive proposition.”

In the last 10 years, subsurface drip irrigation also has become an increasingly popular option in Alabama, says Fulton.

“We’ve seen a tremendous expansion of drip irrigation both in north and south Alabama. Farmers are burying the tape, and it’s working well in smaller fields where center pivots just aren’t feasible. You might have an odd-shaped, 20 or 30-acre field where drip irrigation will work better.”

Since 1998, researchers in Alabama have been looking at drip irrigation and have seen many successes, he says.

“Pressure-compensating tape allows you to go over a hillside and down, and it allows you to have an even water flow regardless of where you are along that slope. We’ve got more than 3,000 acres or so of row crops in Alabama being watered by subsurface drip irrigation.”

phollis@farmpress.com