Higher yields and rising: Irrigation systems help producers beat drought

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SALEM, Ohio – Mud caked on boots and weighted farmers down through spring and early summer when they scouted fields in the region.

These days, the wind blows clouds of dust across the mostly parched landscape and settles them on cars, tractors and pant legs.

Though thousands of acres of crops have turned out to be less than producers hoped, some fields continue to thrive and yield highly.

A large number of those acres have been irrigated.

Growing numbers. “There’s no way we could be in business if we didn’t [use irrigation],” said Jeff Zellers, who raises vegetables, mostly salad greens, at K.W. Zellers and Son in Hartville.

The farm’s 600 acres continue daily watering by crews who move miles of flexible pipe and traveling guns throughout the Stark County operation.

Other farms in the area, mostly those that raise high-dollar crops like fruits, vegetables and nursery stock, are among a growing number of irrigators.

“My guess is that we have 40,000 to 60,000 acres of irrigated cropland in Ohio in an average year,” said Larry Brown, Ohio State agricultural engineer.

The state has not had a comprehensive irrigation survey in years, he said, noting surveys in 1966 indicated 32,000 acres irrigated and in 1989, less than 40,000 acres.

Considerations. There are numerous considerations for growers thinking of investing in an irrigation system, including water supply, soil, drainage, crop, management, system design and economics.

Proper soil tilth, organic matter and weed control are necessary for vegetables to benefit from irrigation.

Crops grown on sandy soils generally respond better to irrigation than those crops grown on medium- or fine-textured soils that hold moisture, according to Brown.

Good drainage is important for successful irrigation, so tile and surface drainage should be installed before irrigation to avoid crop damage.

Proper management of soil water levels is necessary to avoid crop damage from waterlogged soil, according to Brown.

Even more, producers who think about installing an irrigation system should consider the cost – typically thousands of dollars, plus maintenance and upgrading – and compare that to returns from crop yields.

Since low grain market prices don’t compare to retail cost of produce and nursery stock, most experts don’t recommend irrigation systems for row crops, but it can be done.

Water source. Pulling water from a stream is generally not a dependable source because stream flow may disappear during drought periods, Brown said.

Irrigators should check for an adequate water supply for their crop needs.

Generally, a well yield or stream flow of 6 to 15 gallons per minute is required per acre to be irrigated.

In situations where farm ponds are used, at least one acre-foot of water should be stored per acre to be irrigated.

The Zellers farm pulls its water from a number of wells.

“So far we’ve had no trouble and the water is still free-flowing. Tests show that there’s still enough water left,” Zellers said.

Different story. On the average, Ohio has had enough precipitation in the past three to five years to grow crops without incident, but this year was a different story in many parts, according to Brown.

“We normally have enough precipitation in a normal year to make irrigation unprofitable for traditional [corn and soybean] production,” Brown said.

June reports by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources showed a decline in ground water levels across the state and an abrupt end to water recharge levels in early July.

Farms that have continued to irrigate are pulling from reserves that risk running low at any time.

Not a substitute. Growers with irrigation systems have found uses for the systems every growing season. However, irrigation is not a substitute for good management. Water must be applied in the right amount, at the right time and at the proper rate.

As the Zellers operation continues to plant produce to supply markets through the end of the season, workers use irrigation equipment to maintain crop quality and to prepare the fields for planting.

Prior to planting, each field gets between 1- and 11/2-inch of rain mechanically, Zellers said. The irrigation guns also aid the plants during germination and all growth stages.

Even with the lack of rain, one of the main challenges has been the heat.

“This extensive heat, the getting wet then dry again, is what’s getting us. We’re having to water later in the crop this year,” Zellers said.

He also said barely noticeable water droplets from afternoon showers coupled with sunshine afterward, tends to burn the crop. Luckily, the operation hasn’t had trouble with disease.

“It all takes a little bit of creative management, especially to deal with shifting winds,” Zellers said.

“Without [irrigation], we’d have never gotten anything, never had a stand this year.”

Think ahead. “If the farmer already has some irrigation equipment and a reliable water supply, use it,” Brown advised.

“I am not sure it is worth buying new equipment now if they just want to get through this season.”

Brown also encouraged producers who plan to buy and use an irrigation system as part of their normal farming operation to get plenty of education and help from professional suppliers.

“Sales and service are both important. Get a proper design for the application and get a start now for next year,” he said.

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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