While the demand and price for local grains continues to soar in the Upper Southeast, for the most part long-term average yields of corn and other grain crops remain steady at best and in the case of corn, in some states, actually have declined over the past 10 years.

The biggest cause for the lack of growth in grain yields is clearly highly fluctuating weather patterns over the past decade or so.

Despite a lack of control of the weather, some contend the answer to improved and sustainable yields is providing water to the crop when it needs it the most.

Check current corn futures prices

There are a number of reasons why growers don’t irrigate crops in the Southeast, but irrigation specialists contend modern technology and financial flexibility have for the most part overcome these long-standing taboos.

The onset of transgenic crops and other production variables have pushed the average size of farming operations across the region up over the past decade.

What used to be an average size grain operation at the turn of the century is now small by comparison.

Despite so many growers increasing the total acreage they farm, the region is still predominantly made up of small fields, many of them with varying topography, shape and soil types.

Mike Mills, Southeast territory manager for Reinke Irrigation says GPS technology, optional equipment on existing irrigation systems and new technology on new equipment all play a part of solving the problem of small and irregular shaped fields.

For a grower with a couple thousand acres of grain cropland, made up of a hundred or so small, irregular shaped fields, there are several options for putting these areas under irrigation. However, Mills says, the first question to ask is, do I have water available? The second question is how affordable is this water?

“We have design technology available now that doesn’t require that a center pivot system, for example, use the full circle. These systems can be designed to use a part of the circle and adapt to different shapes of fields to fit into the design,” Mills says.

Mills adds that having fields scattered out over a large geographic area is no longer a problem. Reinke for example, can place one telemetry system and work off it for up to 15 miles.

Typically, a dealer will do a path study and determine what type equipment is needed based on the terrain. In some parts of the country, it may be possible to extend that distance to 150 miles.

Systems can fit Southeast conditions

“Too many growers seem to think they have to have a Midwest-like topography to make irrigation work. We have systems that handle up an 18 percent slope — which is a significant slope.

“The bottom line is with today’s technology small, irregular shaped fields, with up and down slopes are not a reason to not use irrigation,” Mills says.

How small is too small for irrigation? Scotty Dunaway co-owner of Georgia-based Wescott Irrigation, says small fields are a reality of farming in the Southeast.

Dryland production is another reality, and along with dryland production comes a high risk of weather-related yield losses.

“If a grower, for example, has a 60 acre field, and wants to grow double-crop soybeans and wheat in rotation with corn, over a period of years his yield potential is going to be limited.

“He may make good yields one year and average or less the next year, but overall, his yield potential is limited,” Dunaway says.

“Year in and year out, we see 100 bushel per acre increase in corn yield — some years less and in some drought years considerably more.

“In soybeans, 50-60 bushel per acre crops are common and higher yields not uncommon in irrigated fields.

“Wheat yields are typically less influenced by lack of moisture, but in some years having water to plant is critical,” Dunaway adds.

“Unless there are some really unusual circumstances, the cost of putting irrigation in that 60 acre field will be around $60,000.  “Conservatively, on decent land, a grower should see at least an 80 bushel per acre increase in corn production and 20 bushels per acre in soybeans.

“At today’s prices, or even close to today’s prices, and using only additional yield, the grower could easily pay off the price of an irrigation system in 3-4 years,” he says.

Cost is most common drawback

The most common reason for not adding irrigation to a farming operation is cost.

Though the standard cost for irrigation equipment is generally around $1,000 per acre, these costs can go up significantly if a grower adds non-standard equipment to match the system up to various topographic demands.

There is no doubt irrigation can increase and sustain higher crop production, whether this increase is adequate to cover the cost of irrigation is a farm to farm question.

In addition to the increased yield, growers also get the added benefit of reduced crop insurance costs.

They also get the assurance that fertilizer and water-activated herbicides will work more efficiently. Dunaway says that in some areas of the Southeast, resistance to glyphosate and other popular herbicides have forced growers to use herbicides that are moisture activated, giving even more importance to the use of irrigation to insure these materials work.

Crop insurance is becoming a significant factor in whether to irrigate or not irrigate.

Roughly 67 percent of crop insurance claims are water related, about evenly divided between too much and too little water. Removing more than 30 percent of the liability for crop insurance is a significant savings to growers, Mills says.

In peanut producing areas of the Southeast, growers are finding contracts are often tied to performance and performance is often tied to availability of irrigation water.

“As peanut growers head into an unprecedented year of contract uncertainty, having irrigation may be the difference between getting a contract not getting one,” Dunaway adds.

Even some buyers are requiring irrigation to insure growers can provide the crops they contract to provide in the futures market. Being able to sell a crop at a premium price can add significantly and quickly to value of an irrigation system.

Cost is often tied to availability of water. How deep will I have to go to find water? How much surface water do I need to supply an irrigation system?

These are frequently asked questions, and the answers vary from farm to farm.

The cost of the irrigation system is fairly constant from one equipment manufacturer to another, but the cost of getting water to the system can vary dramatically from location to location, and growers need to be aware of both the installation and use costs of irrigation.

Current costs $100-$150 per acre

“The current cost of irrigating a grain, cotton or peanut crop in the Southeast ranges from $100-$150 per acre. When costs climb much higher than that, the economics of whether to irrigate or not irrigate comes into question,” Dunaway says.

In some parts of the U.S. the availability of water, regardless of its cost, is a determining factor in which crops a farmer can economically grow.

In the Southeast, water rights and riparian laws have not been a significant issue, but they are likely to be in the future.

As urban areas grow, the need to protect their water supplies will continue to grow and will continue to encroach on the availability for water for irrigation of farm land.

In the Upper Southeast, North Carolina leads the nation in farmland lost to urban and industrial encroachment and Virginia is in the top five.

Mills says parts of the Southeast are already seeing restrictions in new well permits and use of water from public waterways. These restrictions are almost certain to grow, he adds.

“While irrigation is the primary use of rural water, more efficient use of this water is an ongoing challenge for irrigation equipment dealers.

“Computer-based irrigation systems equipped with GPS technology allow modern systems to be incredibly efficient, Mills says.

“We are now getting into the new area of variable rate irrigation. Modern systems can not only monitor the efficient use of water, but they can provide water only where it is needed by plants, making more precise use of what is becoming a scarce and valuable natural resource,” he adds.

rroberson@farmpress.com

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