From center pivot to drip irrigation, farmers have tapped into the funding available through programs offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Read more about how three different farms utilized the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to install new and more efficient irrigation systems.
MB3 Farms is located in Southeast Colorado and covers 3,000 acres. Travis Matthew and his two brothers live and farm 10 miles north of LaJunta near the small town of Cheraw. They primarily farm alfalfa, sorghum and sometimes corn.
Traditionally, their farm utilized flood irrigation. Matthew says they are evolving into using more center pivots to try to help to conserve water and improve other inputs, such as labor, energy and time.
One of Matthew’s family friends works for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and that is how he learned about EQIP — the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. He says information about the options with the program was readily available for producers, and he decided to apply.
“When you’re dealing with the government, nothing’s fast,” Matthew laughs. “But they helped us quite a bit. We wouldn’t have been able to do this by ourselves.” After applying, Matthew says the NRCS helped with some of the design and then the project went into a ranking system.
There is a limited amount of funding available, and MB3 Farms chose to do some extra programs to earn additional points to help boost their ranking and improve their chances to receive funding. They chose a program to help increase their nutrient management. Matthew says it was pretty simple. “We took soil samples from our fields and took them in to a third-party lab for testing,” he says. “When you get your results back, you take it in to the NRCS and work together to create an efficient nutrient plan.”
Matthew’s EQIP project involved updating their irrigation system with three center pivots and three ponds. Their application was approved in fall 2020, and they were given a three-year timespan to get it done. In that area of Colorado, they generally get their first run of water for irrigation on March 15, so the goal was to get the system done by that date. Matthew says they started in January 2021 and the system was completed and ready in March or early April 2021.
The EQIP program provided funding for the equipment needed for this new system. “They pay so much per horsepower of your pump,” Matthew says. “There is a hard limit on the pivot itself.” Matthew says with his project, the program paid a certain amount for each item, and it was all broken down by item, e.g., so much per pound of pipe that goes in the ground, etc.
“They pay for the materials and it is up to the producer to install it themselves to the specs or the procedures that the NRCS sets,” he adds. MB3 Farms had the equipment needed to do the installation themselves, which saved on additional costs.
Getting pipe was a challenge. Normally they would buy pipe in Colorado, but they had to get it from Nevada because of a COVID closure affecting manufacturing.
MB3 Farms just finished one season with the new pivot system, and they have already seen measurable improvements in their efficiency and input costs. Each of the pivots covers about 120 acres. “We are able to put the water where it needs to be,” Matthew says. “We are able to water the whole farm with roughly half as much water. We are able to grow the same crop and expect better yields. We didn’t have near the input costs for getting the ground work done. Instead of two weeks to get it done, we were done in two days. We are able to do more with less.” As opposed to flooding, now they can drop the water right on the plant.
We are able to water the whole farm with roughly half as much water.
Matthew has some advice for anyone interested in using the EQIP program. “They need to educate themselves on how the process works. That’s the main thing.”
An important detail is that the program doesn’t pay the grower until the project is completed and operational. During the process, a grower can expect bills to come in before getting paid through the program. “You have to be ready for that,” he adds. From the time the application is submitted until the time it is completed, it could be a year and a half to two years.
Planning ahead is a big consideration in another way. Matthew says it is important to plan how you are going to farm the ground. For example, do you just want to install a center pivot, or do you also want to irrigate the corners? These decisions have to be considered when applying, because once EQIP funding is used to upgrade a system on a specific piece of ground, that piece of ground is not eligible for funding for the life of that system, which could be as much as 20 years. In other words, if you use EQIP for a center pivot, you can’t go back two years later and request corner irrigation equipment for that same piece of ground.
Would Matthew apply for EQIP funding again? “Absolutely,” he says. “With these kinds of costs, you need help. Water is more important to us than anything. We average 12-15 inches of moisture a year. If we can make that water go further, that is very important to us.”
Brian Bergstrom has been farming full time for 28 years. He is a fifth-generation farmer on his 2,700-acre farm near Axtell, Nebraska, in the south-central part of the state. Bergstrom says he plants two-thirds corn and one-third soybeans. All of his fields are irrigated; 60% is gravity irrigation, and they are slowly converting it over to pivots.
Bergstrom says a friend of his in the NRCS office mentioned that they had a program to convert gravity irrigation. “So I looked into it,” he says. “I just asked him what the requirements were and what I had to do to become approved for it. So that’s how the process started.”
The first time he applied, his project wasn’t accepted, which can happen due to limited funding or other higher-ranking projects. His application was left on file, considered the next year and accepted in 2018.
To enhance his ability to get the application approved, Bergstrom says he agreed to leave the corners of his field as dryland for three years. He also agreed to use soil moisture sensors for three years and to plant a cover crop during one of the three years, which also helped his application.
His EQIP projects, two in the same year, included two new pivots to replace gravity irrigation.
Once the projects were approved, he was required to get them completed and operational by a specific date. Bergstrom hired out the underground pipe work, but he built the pivots himself, which saved him a little on the labor side for construction costs.
The installation was completed and the system was operational in 2018.
Bergstrom says the EQIP money provided to purchase the pivots definitely helped.
“They had a set dollar amount per foot on a pivot,” he notes.
Since installing the pivots, Bergstrom says, “I’ve definitely used a lot less water; probably at least half as much.”
When looking back at the entire EQIP process, Bergstrom says it all went pretty smooth and didn’t require a huge amount of paperwork to apply. For the last three years, he has had to provide proof each year that he has followed the NRCS requirements he agreed to with respect to keeping his corners dryland and using soil moisture sensors and cover crops.
Bergstrom has also installed two weather stations to continue to monitor moisture and evapotranspiration.
For those interested in pursuing EQIP funding, Bergstrom says to definitely go in and talk to someone at your NRCS office, because the rules of the program can change from year to year. He says it’s also important to have a pretty good idea of what you want to do.
“Whether it’s drip tape or pivot drops or a more efficient way of pumping, have a good idea of what you want to do and go ask what the rules and regulations are for the year,” he says.
Whether it’s drip tape or pivot drops or a more efficient way of pumping, have a good idea of what you want to do and go ask what the rules and regulations are for the year.
He would like to apply for the EQIP program again but is waiting until the COVID-19 situation subsides. He says with COVID, he can’t meet with an NRCS representative in their office in his area, and meeting in the parking lot just isn’t quite the same. “I’m going to go and apply for one more field, probably in the next year when that all settles down.”
Bergstrom admits that his father has been averse to using center pivots on their farm, which is why they still use quite a bit of gravity irrigation. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bergstrom says their farm was one of the first in their area to have a swing tower on the end of a pivot. He says they had four of them for about one summer, but they were always getting stuck. As a kid, he remembers carrying bucket after bucket of lava rock to put down to help keep the swing towers from getting stuck.
“In the middle of the summer it got so bad that he actually took all the swing towers off, just so they could get the fields irrigated,” Bergstrom says. “He swore up and down that he would never do it again.” But, that was over 40 years ago, and Bergstrom agrees that pivot equipment and technology have improved dramatically. That, combined with his father’s retirement, have paved the way toward moving to more pivots and less gravity irrigation on their farm.
Bo and Russell Eggemeyer live in Midkiff, Texas, and farm over 5,700 acres. They grow mostly cotton, with a little corn and wheat mixed in, with 1,300 acres irrigated using drip irrigation.
They heard about the EQIP program through farmers who had utilized it in the past. Their project involved purchasing new subsurface drip irrigation system equipment with the latest technology. The project covered 600 acres; 300 acres involved upgrading from a furrow system, and the other 300 acres was upgrading a 20-year-old system.
The Eggemeyer brothers qualified for a special beginning farmer program under EQIP. To be eligible, a farmer must have filed fewer than 10 years of a Schedule F Profit or Loss from Farming form in their taxes. The program is designed to provide incentives and draw in younger farmers, and the pay rate for those eligible is greater.
After completing the installation of their drip irrigation, the Eggemeyers saw immediate benefits. “With subsurface drip irrigation our efficiency has greatly improved. Water is not lost to evaporation, fertilizer is fed directly to the roots,” the Eggemeyers note. “Without having to furrow irrigate it frees up time to really put your shadow on your crops. It also allows us to get into the field at almost any time since it’s never muddy.”
With subsurface drip irrigation our efficiency has greatly improved. Water is not lost to evaporation, fertilizer is fed directly to the roots.
When designing their system, the Eggemeyers utilized the latest technology. “Automatic valves have allowed us to check the systems from our phones or computers,” they say. “Historical graphs show us if there is an issue with the system that you may not see if you only check it once a day.”
Although they farm in an arid climate, the Eggemeyers believe that soil moisture probes have really helped them learn when and how much water the plant is utilizing throughout the year. The probes also provide electrical conductivity information, which helps determine if they are over-watering during fertilizer applications.
The Eggemeyers admit that they had to submit quite a bit of paperwork to qualify for their EQIP program, but their local NRCS office staff made the process smooth and easy. They recommend others taking advantage of the beginning farmer program through EQIP if they are eligible. But they also note that the payback period for their type of system is relatively short.