Irrigation of field

The New Crop Insurance?

After Devastating Drought, More Producers Contemplating Irrigation

By Steve Leer

Gary Neal
Gary Neal

Gary Neal can “make it rain” anytime he wants. The Clinton County, Ind., farmer doesn’t know a special dance that brings precipitation, nor does he seed the clouds above his cornfield. When Neal needs water for his crop, he flips a switch on his center pivot irrigation system.

This past summer when Mother Nature turned off her spigot, Neal turned his on.

“It was so dry that there were times I had the irrigation system take a couple of laps around the field,” says Neal, who grew 125 acres of irrigated corn on his farm west of Frankfort this past year. “It takes about 14 hours for the system to make one revolution. By the second lap the soil looked like it had received water. Some weeks I put a couple of inches of water on the field.”

Like Neal, farmers across the Midwest are taking a serious look at irrigation following a 2012 drought that was the worst in a half-century. The arid conditions left Indiana an average of 3.1 degrees warmer and 6.27 inches of precipitation drier than normal for the year. Southwest Indiana was hit hardest, receiving 9.84 inches of precipitation less than in an average year.

Water, Water Resources Everywhere

To help farmers learn about irrigation and whether the systems are right for their operations, Purdue Extension is stepping up its educational programming efforts.

A series of workshops on irrigation systems, water management and rights issues, and the economics of irrigation took place in Fountain, Knox and Tippecanoe counties in January and February. Purdue Extension educators statewide also are providing irrigation publications and referrals to farmers who ask.

And asking they are, says Lyndon Kelley, Extension irrigation specialist for Purdue and Michigan State University.

 “A lot more people are talking about it, and not just because of last year’s drought,” Kelley says. “We’re looking at a fourth straight year of farmer profits, and the farmers who irrigated last year made money. Those who have been irrigating have been on the high road, in terms of economics.”

Farmers look for three benefits from irrigation, Kelley says: protecting their average crop yield from drought loss, increasing their average yield in non-drought years and allowing for the raising of higher-value specialty crops. It is not inconceivable that a farmer could increase crop revenues by hundreds of dollars per acre by irrigating.

Crop Circles

Irrigation in the Corn Belt, whether of the overhead pivot or ground-level drip varieties, is more common in states west and south of Missouri, where rainfall is less plentiful than the usually precipitation-rich Great Lakes states. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2007 Census of Agriculture, Nebraska irrigated 8.55 million acres of cropland; Indiana that same year, just 397,113 acres.

Corn is the most irrigated crop in Indiana, with soybeans and specialty crops such as melons right behind. More than 90 percent of Indiana irrigation is center pivot, where long sections of pipes with spray nozzles are suspended about 12 feet above the cropfield on wheeled bases and pulled in a giant circle by a stationary motor. Water is pumped into the pipes from wells, some of which reach depths of near 100 feet.

Water availability is critical, Kelley says.

“On hot days you’ll need to be able to pump five gallons a minute 24 hours a day, seven days a week for one acre of land,” he says. “That means for a 100-acre field you’ll need a 500-gallon-a-minute pump. That would be the same as applying an inch of water every four days.”

The water applied to crops also replenishes water sources just below the soil surface. “It is very common for irrigated land to provide 8-14 inches of recharge to the aquifers below them. Often the recharge is 150-200 percent of irrigation water use,” Kelley says.

Indiana law protects residential water sources and lake levels near irrigated land.

Pricey Precipitation

Irrigation systems don’t come cheap. Parts, installation, well work and providing a power supply for the pump to irrigate 130 acres can cost about $120,000. Add a cornering system to cover more acres, and the total can reach $160,000, says Gene Matzat, Purdue Extension educator in LaPorte County. LaPorte is Indiana’s irrigation leader, at nearly 48,000 acres in 2007.

“Given the number of new pivot systems that have gone in since that time, I would guess we are now close to 70,000 irrigated acres,” Matzat says.

The acreage numbers are certain to go up this year, says Valerie Clingerman, Extension educator in Knox County, Indiana’s No. 2 irrigation county.

“I’ve talked to irrigation dealers and they’ve got installation work backed up to August,” Clingerman says.

Clinton County’s Neal won’t have to wait for the installers—just another long dry spell to activate his center pivot.

“I helped my dad and brother put our system in back around 1975 or ’76,” Neal says. “Dad had the foresight to do this when not many people were doing it in central Indiana.”​