Farmers have Irrigation Envy

Farmers have Irrigation Envy

Severe drought has farmers wishing for water relief – one way or another

The crops in northern Indiana were already burning up two weeks ago when we visited the Brad and Kyle Stackhouse farm near Plymouth. The Stackhouses were part of the annual Purdue farm management tour, and they had a lot of good ideas to share. One investment that got a lot of attention: the irrigation pivots that were churning out life-saving H2O a few yards from the farm yard.

Corn in northern Indiana was rolled up like a pineapple in late June, and this week's heat wave won't help.

With farm incomes at record highs the past few years, it's no wonder that irrigation equipment companies say sales doubled from 2007 to 2012. Both tile and irrigation equipment have been in tight supply, leading me to believe many farmers would rather boost productivity on their current land base than venture into the $10K per acre land market.

The worsening drought has caused irrigation envy for many Corn Belt farmers, the vast majority of whom depend on Mother Nature alone for moisture.

"We bought four pivots last year and now I wish I had more," remarked one farmer on the tour.

The Stackhouse farm bought its first center pivot in 1978. "Our corn back then averaged 45 bu. per acre, which is why we started irrigating," says Brad Stackhouse. In more recent years yields have reached 259 bu. per acre, tallying second place in the state's corn growing contest.

Even so, the Stackhouses say one of the most valuable lessons learned was that irrigation does not guarantee high yields.

"Too much water at the wrong time can damage yields," says Brad. "You can lose yield by poor irrigation management, which increases costs on a per acre basis without better yields."

They now operate 22 units that range from 500 feet to 1,800 feet.

Purdue ag engineer Lyndon Kelley offers irrigation tips to farmers as a center pivot provides crop relief in background.

While they are happy for the grain-saving water, irrigation is more labor and management intensive than most farmers might realize. "Running pivots in summer is a lot of work and it can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing," says Brad. "This is actually the most stressful time of year because we are managing irrigation intensively."

Kyle, Brad's son, explains that the 3,100-acre farm is spread across 20 miles, so the farm uses simple computer controls that can be operated by remote control. He can read a monitor and see that a pivot is malfunctioning from 20 miles away.

Purdue Ag engineer Lyndon Kelley held a breakout session on the Stackhouse farm, explaining that the average cost to install new irrigation is $1,050 per acre for a 160-acre field. That includes a $30,000 well. Click here for more of Kelley's irrigation resources.

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