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Switching to drip

Harold Worrell has the distinction of being the first producer to use subsurface drip irrigation systems around Altus, Okla. He installed them in 1995, building them underneath 1,800 acres of cotton and leaving 3,200 acres underneath sprinkler systems.

“We’re progressive farmers, trying to find something new to make more money, use less labor,” he says. “We probably won’t switch everything.”

Altus sits on the flat prairie in southwest Oklahoma and is the state’s primary cotton-producing area. Subsurface drip irrigation has been used for less than 20 years around Altus, but irrigation is nothing new to the region, as thousands of acres of cotton are irrigated under sprinkler systems each year.

The water comes through the Lugart-Altus Irrigation District in a series of canals drained from Lake Lugart-Altus several miles north in the nearby Quartz Mountains. Due to the clay-based canal structure of the irrigation district (constructed during World War II), it may actually be better-suited for subsurface drip irrigation than sprinkler systems.

“You have to have a certain amount of water to keep the sprinkler system going,” says Stacy Riley, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Con-servation Service in Jackson County, Okla.

Slow increase in use

Around eight to 10 farms currently use subsurface drip irrigation systems around Altus, and while the numbers are growing slowly, they are still increasing. One reason for the slow progress seems to be the price, and many producers aren’t even sure it will work for their operations, making them hesitant to try the technology.

“It’s expensive enough that producers want to start out on a small acreage before spreading out,” says J.C. Banks, director of the Oklahoma State University Extension and Research Center, south of Altus.

“They look at it, see it will work for them, then expand as they see fit,” Banks says.

To help grapple with the high cost of the subsurface drip systems and provide more incentives for using the systems, the USDA, through the NRCS, offers producers aid through a cost-share program called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

With EQIP, producers are allotted up to $300,000 over a six-year period to install micro-irrigation systems. But they must first qualify for the program by having had irrigation in their fields for at least two of the past five years.

Application process

A conservation program application is filled out by producers at the NRCS office, and an NRCS agent will ask them questions concerning their operations, such as farm size and what they intend to do with the irrigation systems. The agent also visits the farm to determine if it is conducive to the technology. A contract is signed once the producer meets all the requirements.

The program has been available in Jackson County since 2004, and NRCS has seen about 30 to 35 contracts affecting about 3,000 acres converted to subsurface drip irrigation systems. The first system using the program was completed in 2005.

Many irrigation systems qualify under the program, but an emphasis is placed on subsurface drip systems for environmental reasons.

“You get more bang for your buck with subsurface drip irrigation,” Riley says.

As much as subsurface drip irrigation is gaining in popularity, some believe that it will never completely replace sprinkler systems in Altus. On fields where it is warranted, producers are choosing to stick with the sprinkler systems, a technology that has worked around Altus for years.

“I think sprinkler systems will always be around. It comes down to personal preference,” Riley says.

Brazil writes from Clermont, Fla.

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FIRST DRIP FARMER: Eager to save on money and labor, Harold Worrell was an early adopter of subsurface drip irrigation in Altus, Okla. Photo by J.C. Banks

This article published in the February, 2010 edition of IRRIGATION EXTRA.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.