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From the Spring 2013 Logan County Farm Outlook

Is irrigation a good backup plan for Logan County producers?

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[April 01, 2013]  Since the days of farm pioneer William Scully, managing water on Logan County farm ground has been a big issue that farmers have come to accept.

Most of what they have dealt with is too much water. However, this past year what they saw was not nearly enough.

While several popular opinions are that the drought of 2012 may have been a fluke and not the beginning of a long-term problem, there are those who are concerned and playing the game "What if...?"

Colder temperatures and wet snow over the last few days of February and the first few of March came at perfect times for soil saturation. The snow days were followed by warm days that allowed the frozen precipitation to melt slowly and be absorbed by the thirsty soils below.

This has been a cause for some optimism, unless you are one who believes that the real trend heading into this area is one of wet springs and dry summers.

So, what if in July the rain does stop? Should Logan County farmers be considering irrigation systems as a backup plan?

There are pros and cons to every situation, and looking at these may offer the answers.

In the northern regions of the county especially, the question of water resources is an easy answer. There is plenty. Logan County sits atop the Mahomet Aquifer, which stretches from Champaign County to the Illinois River. Shallow wells in the county are productive, and if that is not enough, deeper drilling could reach the aquifer.

On the downside, according to John Fulton of the Logan County Extension office in Lincoln, there is a waiting list for well drillers, which means that even if farmers wanted to have a backup system in place for this year, it might not be possible.

Another option could be a retention pond where water could be drawn into the irrigation system. This is a viable means of supplying water for irrigation, but in a dry year, pond levels will drop just as will creeks, rivers or lakes.

Another consideration is how much irrigation a farm would need. On a pivot system with 900 feet of rotating sprinklers and a 100-foot end gun going a full circular rotation, the land mass covered would be only 72 acres.

This assumes that the field would be configured in such a way that the pivot could run a full circle, which in many cases it cannot, which means producers are using too much tool. On the other hand, in fields that are larger than 80 acres, for example, this is going to equate to not enough tool. Thus, multiple systems are going to be needed.

A study conducted in 2008 by the three Alabama universities in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture showed that on a 60-acre field, the cost of installing an irrigation system could run as much as $73,000 all-inclusive. In the study, the research considered the drilling of a well, installation of a pivot with an electric drive system, all the sprinklers, and associated hardware and installation.

The study also concluded that the annual cost of operating the 60-acre system would be over $8,300, or $138 per acre. This cost was figured assuming 7 acre-inches of water applied annually. It was also based on electricity at a cost of 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, repairs and maintenance of the system, and labor calculated at only $8 per hour. Considering the most recent study is five years old, it is safe to assume these figures are conservative.

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In addition, if the system is driven by a fuel rather than electricity, Fulton estimated that the cost of running the system could go up by a few hundred dollars an acre.

In mid-September 2012, the average price of corn was $7.81 per bushel, compared with the price of $6.77 per bushel in the same month of 2011. The average corn yield in Logan County in 2012 was 96.5 bushels per acre, while in 2011 that average was 173.4 bushels per acre. In spite of the lower price per bushel in 2011, the difference between the two years comes to $420.26 per acre.

At face value, it looks like an irrigation system could have been of benefit in 2012. But looking on the long term, with a cost of $138 to maintain it, the gain that could have been realized drops to $282.26 per acre.

Add to that the cost of using a petroleum-based fuel instead of electricity, and this number could drop to nothing. In addition, there are other considerations, such as the increase of fertilizer needed for consistently irrigated crops and the need for an increased seed population at planting. When you get to the bottom line, it may very well turn out that irrigation costs more than it is worth, even in a drought year.

So, long story short, said Fulton, itís probably not a viable backup plan at all. Itís a production method to help reach a more average production level. On many of the productive farms in our area, the additional cost of equipment and its operation isnít justified economically for regular production.

Fulton did go on to say that there are a few irrigation systems in use in Logan County. However, they are being used primarily in the production of specialty crops such as vegetables or by seed producers. In those cases, the dollar return per acre is much higher than with a commodity crop, and therefore irrigation becomes a more affordable alternative to Mother Nature.

[By NILA SMITH]

Reference material

 

Spring 2013
Logan County Farm Outlook

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