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]