Field talk

Three farmers share how they work to keep their irrigation operations as efficient as possible.
BY ANNE BLANKENBILLER
Field talk

Business owners generally operate with the same basic goals: maximize profits and minimize costs. Ag producers are no different, and those that use irrigation can also tack on the added responsibility of protecting critical natural resources.

By taking steps to maximize the efficiency of their irrigation systems and utilize efficient practices, many growers have found that they not only see their input costs reduced but they’re also able to decrease the amount of irrigation water used to produce their crops.

How do they do it? Let’s find out. Join us as we take a peek over the fence and learn more about what three different farms do to maximize efficiency in their irrigation operations.

Learning more by slowing down

Russell Isaacs | Oklahoma

The farm Russell Isaacs and his father Richard manage grows corn, soybeans, sorghum and cotton.
The farm Russell Isaacs and his father Richard manage grows corn, soybeans, sorghum and cotton.

Russell Isaacs lives in the Oklahoma Panhandle near Turpin, Oklahoma. He and his wife and father manage over 10,000 acres in Oklahoma up to the Kansas state line. The farm has been in operation since the early 1900s. Isaacs says a little over half of his farm is irrigated, utilizing center pivots. They raise corn, soybeans, sorghum and cotton.

Isaacs farms in an area of the country that is dry and receives 20 inches of moisture on average per year. According to Isaacs, “We farm in a desert.”

How does your operation maximize irrigation and water-use efficiency?

Isaacs says that using soil moisture probes and learning better irrigation practices have improved his farm’s efficiency.

“Probably one of the biggest improvements was slowing down our pivots to run slower laps,” Isaacs says. Because this area of Oklahoma is a dry climate, he says there is a certain amount of water that is lost through evaporation on the leaves and the dry ground. Isaacs says the soil moisture sensors taught them that slower pivot laps are much more efficient, allowing them to get more water into the ground deeper into the root zone.

“Changing crop rotation is the other thing that’s helped us to be more efficient with our water,” says Isaacs. In the past, wheat was a part of his crop rotation, which meant that the wells were running a good portion of the year. The wells would start pumping in February and March for corn, and then following corn harvest, they were pumping to get the wheat going in October and November.

Russell Isaacs’ wife Alice helps run their 10,000-acre farm in Oklahoma.
Russell Isaacs’ wife Alice helps run their 10,000-acre farm in Oklahoma.

Isaacs made what he considers a “cultural change” and replaced wheat with corn and soybeans to support his goals to use water more effectively. With this new plan, he says the wells only run from the time the corn was planted until the beans are down, and then it sits the rest of the year. Issacs says it required them to be better managers of that water during the season, but “it made a huge difference in the amount of water we use.”

Now Isaacs says they have put in a cotton crop instead of the soybeans in one area of the farm. “Cotton uses less water than the soybeans,” he says.

What technology or practice has helped with efficiency?

“Soil moisture sensors have been huge; they really helped us learn how to irrigate more efficiently,” Isaacs says. Through the data obtained with the soil moisture sensors, he says it really taught them how to irrigate more effectively by slowing down the pivot.

Results?

By slowing down the pivots, Isaacs says that they have been able to raise better crops. Because they weren’t losing water to evaporation and more effectively irrigating their crops into the roots, it has allowed them to produce more — more bushels per inch of water used. “It helped us raise better crops with the same amount of water,” Isaacs says.


“Soil moisture sensors have been huge; they really helped us learn how to irrigate more efficiently.” – Russell Isaacs


Any plans for the future to further improve irrigation efficiency?

“I would like to try subsurface drip irrigation,” Isaacs says. So far, the cost has prohibited him from trying this new method, but he has some neighbors that have utilized some government funding for it.

“In this part of the world, we went from flood irrigation, to center pivots that had impact nozzles on the top, and then to center pivots with drops that were 6-foot, and now center pivots with drops that are 2 feet off the ground.” Although these are small changes made over time, what he considers low-hanging fruit, they are necessary and add up to significant improvements.

As Isaacs looks back at how irrigation practices in his area have changed and evolved over the years, he is always looking ahead for what ideas and oppor-tunities are available to improve the efficiency of his operation and make it more profitable, especially with irrigation and other inputs.

Looking ahead to what’s new

Matthew Morris | Arkansas

Matthew Morris gets some help out in the field from his youngest son Eli.
Matthew Morris gets some help out in the field from his youngest son Eli.

Matthew Morris and his family live in Carlisle, Arkansas, and farm just under 2,000 acres in Central Arkansas. They farm rice, corn and soybeans; around 50% is rice. The farm’s corn and soybeans are all furrow irrigated. The rice used to be standard cascade watering, but now every bit of it is multiple inlet. They utilize almost 80% surface water, and Morris would like to see that get to 100%.

Morris is the fifth generation of the oldest rice farm in the state of Arkansas. His great-great-grandfather John Morris and John’s brother-in-law, W.H. Fuller, began farming rice on that land in 1897. The farm endured many failed acres in those early years, but the Morris family persevered, and the farm has survived for over 100 years.

How does your operation maximize irrigation and water-use efficiency?

Morris utilizes all kinds of technologies, including sensors, flow meters and weather stations. He also uses telemetry across the whole farm. This year, he’s testing some water level sensors and is looking to integrate that into the operation.

Morris also has a photosynthetic sensor that will measure the sunlight so he can track growing degree days. This connects to his phone and allows him to see where he’s at in the growing process and monitor the need for irrigation.

“This will shave probably at least one, maybe two, irrigations off of our crop at the end of the year,” Morris says. “So we’re using that to determine when to stop irrigating. And it has saved quite a bit of not just water, but labor of having to get everything turned on and whatnot.”

Utilizing a pipe planner app has also made a difference in Morris’ irrigation practices. With the guidance and information provided using the pipe planner app and portable flow meters, Morris says he is able to irrigate his fields in a more precise and efficient way. He says it takes the guesswork out of irrigation, and he can really dial in to how much water is required for the field and how to accurately provide it.

Matthew Morris and his wife Erica farm just under 2,000 acres in Central Arkansas.
Matthew Morris and his wife Erica farm just under 2,000 acres in Central Arkansas.

What specific technology or practice helps you irrigate efficiently?

“Moisture sensors is the first thing that comes to my mind,” says Morris. “When it comes to just irrigation in general, efficient and effective irrigation, soil moisture sensors are probably the biggest thing that we can use out here, simply because there’s no other way to know how much water is in the ground.”

All of his sensors are tied to telemetry, so he can look on his tablet or phone and chart those numbers, develop graphs, see trends and watch certain growth stages.

He also attributes some specific irrigation practices to contributing to the efficiency of his operation, including using methods such as alternate wetting and drying and multiple inlet irrigation. By using a rice irrigation app and drones, he is able to implement alternate wetting and drying in his rice fields. This water-saving irrigation practice helps maximize rainfall capture and reduce irrigation pumping and water consumption in rice fields without decreasing yield.


By using a rice irrigation app and drones, he [Morris] is able to implement alternate wetting and drying in his rice fields.


What is a simple first step to improve irrigation efficiency?

“It’s easy to obtain some moisture sensors. And depending on if you want to read the data yourself or use a company, it’s a good way to get your foot in the door,” Morris says. “And it’s a good tool that will show results. Sometimes, we don’t realize just how sloppy we are when we irrigate.”

He says by using tools like surge valves and moisture sensors across the field, he has a much bigger perspective on what’s going on with his crops and his irrigation.

Morris would like to see other farmers jump on board with using some of the newer technologies and practices that are available to help use irrigation more efficiently. “But sometimes it’s like pulling teeth out here,” he admits. “We’re in a critical groundwater area, and our water tables are just being depleted so fast.” His concern is that farmers are reluctant to make changes and when they realize it is necessary, it might be too late.

Any plans for the future to further improve irrigation efficiency?

“I’m going to start using water level sensors in my rice field to help me determine how full my paddies are,” Morris says. “And when I do alternate wetting and drying, the sensor will actually tell me how deep the water is.”

Morris says he is always looking at what’s new and what’s coming out. He understands the importance of being a good steward of irrigation water, and he admits that it doesn’t always mean it’s the easiest way to farm. “Sometimes it takes more work,” he says. “I’ve been married for almost 14 years, and we have three boys 13, nine and five. If I want them to be able to farm if they choose to, then it is the most important thing I can do to save our natural resources right now.”

Farming wasn’t easy in the early 1900s

William H. Fuller and his wife, Margaret Ann, were some of the first to farm rice in Arkansas.
William H. Fuller and his wife, Margaret Ann, were some of the first to farm rice in Arkansas.

Matthew Morris’ farm in Central Arkansas is the oldest rice farm in the state. Morris’ great-great-grandfather John Morris and his brother-in-law William H. Fuller started farming rice in that location in 1897. In those early years, the farm mostly experienced failed acres.

More heartbreak ensued when John Morris was traveling to Louisiana in 1903 to learn more about rice farming. During his travels, he became ill and died, so his wife Emma Morris and her sons Elmer and Miron picked up the pieces and finished out the season farming 10 acres that yielded 904 bushels of rice.

In 1904, William Fuller was tasked with the challenge of growing rice commercially on the prairie. The citizens of the county told him that if he could do it, they would pay him $1,000, which was a hefty sum in 1904. “And he did it — he grew rice commercially,” says Morris.

About 117 years later, Morris entered the University of Arkansas “Most Crop Per Drop” contest for rice, using the same field where Fuller first won his $1,000. Morris took home first place in the contest that year, further proving that his farm — one that he hopes will continue on for a sixth generation — is on some pretty special land.

Managing hillside irrigation challenges

Santa Rosa Valley Farm | California

By using a variable frequency drive, the farm is able to change pressures for different pumping requirements.
By using a variable frequency drive, the farm is able to change pressures for different pumping requirements.

The Santa Rosa Valley Farm is 220 acres located in Camarillo’s Santa Rosa Valley in California. They currently grow blueberries in soil, avocados on the hillsides and 100 acres of strawberries. The farm, which has been operating since 2017, has 200 irrigated acres. The strawberries start with micro sprinklers to establish the crop and then go to drip tape in-bed irrigation. The blueberries are irrigated by in-ground drip tubing, and the avocados are irrigated with micro sprinklers.

How do you work to maximize irrigation efficiency?

In 2019, the farm expanded its crops to add avocados, growing the trees on 20 previously unused acres of barren hillside. The multilevel terrain is ideal for avocado farming, but it posed a challenge for effectively and efficiently irrigating the crop. At the steepest elevation, water had to travel 500 feet uphill, but only 100 feet at its lowest elevation. To boost energy efficiency and better manage irrigation, the farm installed a variable frequency drive.

By installing a VFD on a single pump serving multiple irrigation lines, they have the flexibility to change pressures for different pumping requirements. The VFD enables the pump to vary the flow of water while maintaining different operating pressure set points depending on the topographical needs, which has resulted in energy savings.

Santa Rosa Valley Farm recently began growing avocados on 20 acres of unused hillside, posing an irrigation challenge.
Santa Rosa Valley Farm recently began growing avocados on 20 acres of unused hillside, posing an irrigation challenge.

The variable frequency drive allows the farm to use the correct psi and flow for all of the different needs they have. It has given them the ability to irrigate precisely with the psi they need without wasting extra energy. Santa Rosa Valley Farm’s irrigation systems are designed for optimum uniformity and use pressure-compensating parts everywhere they can in order to have the highest uniformity possible. Irrigation scheduling decisions are made based on soil moisture sensor reading, real-time climate and a lot of experience.

After installing the VFD, the farm has optimized its pump operations and reduced energy costs by 43%.

Any plans for the future to further improve irrigation efficiency?

Santa Rosa Valley Farm believes they have a good balance of maximizing irrigation efficiency and being able to stay within realistic practices. Automated irrigation systems, such as valve control and turning off and on valves based on a schedule, are their next step.

Santa Rosa Valley Farm Q&A contributed by Jeff Hirashima, Coast Water Solutions.
Anne Blankenbiller is the editor-in-chief of Irrigation Today.
it-icon

RELATED NEWS

Smart Irrigation Month is the time for the ag irrigation industry to share effective irrigation benefits and info with their communities.

Smart Irrigation Month is happening now

Smart Irrigation Month is the time for the ag irrigation industry to share effective irrigation benefits and info with their communities.
Growers are making adjustments as they see a continuing contraction of the supply chain around irrigation equipment parts and maintenance.

Missing parts

Growers are making adjustments as they see a continuing contraction of the supply chain around irrigation equipment parts and maintenance.
The ag irrigation industry is experiencing a disrupted supply chain, item shortages, increased costs and global logistics difficulties.

Chain reaction

The ag irrigation industry is experiencing a disrupted supply chain, item shortages, increased costs and global logistics difficulties.