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Irrigation systems: Real rainmakers for farmers

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Nearly a quarter of Delaware's 508,000 acres of farmland is under irrigation, thanks to a demand for more vegetable crops and soybeans, and strides in the mechanics of irrigation systems, like the center pivot Reinke system. (Photo by Walls Irrigation)

Nearly a quarter of Delaware’s 508,000 acres of farmland is under irrigation, thanks to a demand for more vegetable crops and soybeans, and strides in the mechanics of irrigation systems, like the center pivot Reinke system. (Photo by Walls Irrigation)

Yields increase as farmers invest.

by Christi Milligan

In 1973, Delaware boasted about 20,000 acres of irrigated farmland, most of it hand-moved pipe. Today, there are 127,272 acres, 95 percent of it irrigated through center pivot systems that deliver better precision and higher yields.

Both farmers and state officials call the expansion proof that the farming industry is thriving, and its farmers are in it for the long haul as they look for foolproof methods to deliver more product.

According to a survey of Delaware corn production last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, irrigation increased yields by 57 bushels per acre.

“One of the biggest trends is the farmer’s investment in irrigation systems over the last 20 or 25 years,” said Delaware Department of Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee.

The expansion of irrigation in Delaware in the last 40 years is the confluence of two factors, according to Kee: The engineering and technology of center pivot systems that offer broader, more efficient irrigation; and the expansion of the poultry industry that created an increased demand for corn and soybeans.

A center pivot system is composed of segments of pipe that are joined together and mounted on towers that feature sprinklers.  The circular rotation of the system offers larger coverage and more efficient use of water.

But the capital investment in the system is costly, as much as $1,100 to $1,500 per acre, according to Kee.

In 2010, the Delaware Department of Agriculture and the Delaware Economic Development Office began administering the Delaware Rural Irrigation Program (DRIP), a revolving no-interest loan fund available to farmers to add new irrigation systems with a goal of increasing irrigated cropland in the state.

The program has generated an additional 3,500 acres of irrigation since it started, with nearly 25 different participants, Kee said.

The impact on yields is compelling.

For example, in 2015, irrigated corn yielded 222.8 bushels per acre while non-irrigated corn yielded 165.8 bushels per acre – about $280 of extra income per acre, according to Kee.

Corn yields, in fact, could be the poster child for the benefits of a hard-working irrigation system. Corn has a large water requirement, nearly one-quarter to one-third inch daily. If it doesn’t get enough water, the growth process shuts down, a principle that is intensified during the reproduction phase of tassling and silking, said Kee.

Richard Wilkins purchased his first of four center pivot systems in 2006. Owner of a diversified farming operation west of Milford, he grows soybeans, corn, wheat barley and vegetables on 1,000 acres, about 275 them irrigated.

“One of the reasons that it’s a good idea to incentivize farmers to irrigate their land is that it gives us the ability to make sure the nutrients we’re using to grow our crops are fully utilized,” said Wilkins, a board member of the Delaware Farm Bureau and president of the American Soybean Association.

Crop season usually begins with an educated guess to predict yields and the amount of fertilizer required to produce them.

For non-irrigated acres, it’s a projection that can be quickly undone by Mother Nature. Not enough rainfall means unused nutrients and loss of money; too much rainfall leaves farmers short on nutrients.

“What irrigation does for us is it gives us greater certainty that we can put on the amount of water that crop needs,” said Wilkins, who said it also opens the door for contracts to grow higher-value vegetable crops.

But does that predictability ease any of the stress so inherent to the farming industry?  Yes and no, according to Wilkins, who said the systems lower his energy costs by using less pressure.

The center pivot system sprinkles the water on soil at lower height than a typical hose reel system, which shoots water in the air, losing some of it to evaporation.

“But irrigation is something you have to manage, you have more equipment that you have to be concerned about,” said Wilkins. “When something breaks down you could be in for a more stressful time.”

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