Irrigation Pays When Farmers Plan

Irrigation Pays When Farmers Plan

Corn and alfalfa are among the farm crops that return the most to irrigation. A new checklist helps farmers organize their irrigation needs and resources.

As grain farmers plan to install irrigation systems for next year's crops organization is key. That's why Lyndon Kelley, a Purdue and Michigan State Extension irrigation specialist, authored a free irrigation planning checklist, available on the Michigan State University Extension news page at

"When planning a new irrigation system for your farm, a little organization can help avoid mistakes," Kelley says. "The checklist was collected from several well-seasoned irrigators and irrigation sales people."

First, he said, farmers need to pay attention to irrigation water requirements and make sure there is enough water available to meet them.

"In Michigan and Indiana, evaporation and plant water use from the soil are between 0.25 inches and 0.30 inches for several days each summer," Kelley says. "Systems that can provide 5 gallons per acre will meet the 0.25 inch per day. Seven gallons per acre will be needed to provide 0.30 inch water requirements."

Because irrigation isn't profitable without adequate water sources, farmers also need to pay close attention to ground and surface water availability.

Nearby, large-volume irrigation, municipal or industrial wells are good sources of water.

"Well drillers familiar with large volume wells in your area are also excellent resources," he says.

Surface water also needs to be available – especially during late July and early August when irrigation needs are at their maximum. Kelley said farmers need to evaluate the available flow the summer before they begin irrigation.

Legal requirements for irrigating need to be considered. Water rights and regulation differ by state, so producers need to pay special attention to those. Farmers also need to take into account the options for sharing irrigation equipment with neighbors, mapping irrigation ideas, available power sources and the economics of irrigation.

"Make sure irrigation will pay," Kelley says. "Think in terms of increasing your average net income per acre after you have covered the additional irrigation-related bills. Figuring this out in advance of the investment is detailed but well worth the time."

He suggested getting multiple bids from irrigation professionals to make sure farmers have access to the best irrigation tools at the best prices.

Irrigation plans also will depend on the crops grown and crop rotation and tillage preferences.

"Among the traditional crops, commercial corn and alfalfa have shown the greatest economic advantage to irrigation," Kelley says. "Small grains and soybeans have offered some of the lowest returns from added investment in irrigation. Changes in crop rotations often result from adding irrigation."

Specialty crops, such as vegetables and hybrid seed corn, also can benefit from irrigation, but only on certain soil types.

Finally, Kelley said it's important to make sure farmers consider their farming and family goals and match them to irrigation ideas.

"If you think you have a difficult time getting away for a summer vacation now, adding irrigation will greatly increase the required summer labor and cut free time," he says. "Capable irrigation labor is hard to find. Misjudging your available labor and management time needs can lead to a disaster."

TAGS: USDA Extension
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