Irrigation Technology Nothing Short Of Amazing

Nebraska Notebook

Variable rate irrigation technology was one of the management practices getting considerable attention at a two-day workshop I recently attended in Kearney.

Published on: March 8, 2013

About a year ago, Nebraska Farmer carried an article about a northeast Nebraska farmer who had adopted and was testing variable rate irrigation technology on a center pivot system. He said favorable corn and soybean prices in recent years made it possible for him to invest in this emerging technology. Its use saved him both water and energy.

We've heard that response from more than one Nebraska producer during our farm visits. It's an indication that making a profit will, in most cases, lead to more adoption of resource stewardship practices.

Variable rate irrigation technology was one of the management practices getting considerable attention at a two-day workshop I recently attended in Kearney. The Central States Irrigation Association, covering Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas, holds the gathering. It rotates the conference among the three states, and this year was Nebraska's turn.

The world of applying water to crops has changed dramatically over the years, in Nebraska and the High Plains. Challenges of drought, limited water supplies and government regulations are pushing university researchers, irrigation companies and farmers themselves to come up with technologies and practices to apply water at the right time and in the right amounts.

Last year's drought and the intense heat forced farmers to apply more water than normal to maintain their crops. It may not have been the most efficient use of water, but it was a necessity.

The irrigation technology being refined today is nothing short of amazing. During the conference I sat through sessions on how and when to use limited water supplies and on precision monitoring equipment that allows checking and control of multiple pivots from the home computer or cell phone. Variable rate irrigation was another popular topic during the conference.

VRI allows a pivot to apply water in different amounts--based on factors such as soil types, slope and other features of a field—as it rotates around the field. It does so in two ways. The first is speed control—simply speeding up or slowing down of the pivot as it makes its rotation. For instance, the pivot can speed up over finely textured soils that have good water-holding capacities and slow down over coarser, sandy soils that don't hold water as well.

~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~The second is zone control. Individual sprinklers or groups of sprinklers are rigged to apply water in different rates, based on a water prescription fed into the control panel. When this more precise approach is combined with speed control, the amount of zones that receive a specific amount of water is amazing. One company says one circle can have a specific amount of water applied to 54,000 separate zones within a circle. He admitted that for farmers that "may be overkill." But it can be a worthwhile tool for researchers examining a high number of plots.

Stretching limited water supplies has become a necessity for those with low-capacity wells or those within natural resources district that allocates the amount of water pumped each year. Researchers talked of several ways to deal with limited irrigation water. Those options may not meet a crop's requirements for a full yield, but they are ways to stretch short water supplies.

With 8 million acres under irrigation, Nebraska is the country's leading irrigation state. The state is fortunate to have more groundwater available than other states. We have irrigators who through the years have become very knowledgeable irrigators. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty is a leader in water science and irrigation expertise. Manufacturers in this state, including the four top center pivot manufacturers, continually come up with new tools that save water.

Farmer-led natural resources districts have become more willing to use their authorities to manage the groundwater supplies.

The technology expansion also includes crop genetics. Hybrids in general stand up better today to drought than 30 to 40 years ago.

The pivot, itself, continues to replace inefficient gravity systems across Nebraska, with the help of local, state and federal cost-share dollars and farmers' own willingness to adopt technology that saves water and energy.

But over-application of irrigation water occurs. It can be seen from the road in too many cases. Additionally, domestic wells in parts of northeast Nebraska went dry due to the pumping effects of nearby pivots.

Take the time this spring to examine the new technology tools available. It is an added expense, but in the process you're helping extend our precious groundwater and surface water for future generations.