By Jon Zirkle, Michigan State University Extension
Agriculture Census shows that 9.1% of Michigan farms had irrigated land, an increase from the 2002 Census. Michigan State University Extension Irrigation Educator Lyndon Kelley expects the upcoming 2012 Agriculture Census will show these figures have grown dramatically. Kelley says numerous irrigation companies in the region have seen sales double since 2006. Furthermore, the higher crop yields made possible in part by irrigation have surely contributed to agriculture's growing role in the Michigan economy.
While Michigan has an abundance of groundwater and surface water, the amount of precipitation the state receives during summer months is inadequate to meet the needs of some field crops during their period of greatest evapotranspiration. According to a January 2012 report from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michigan is the driest state east of the Mississippi River during July and August. With irrigation as a management option, crop water demands can be met during summer months, providing a safety net for farmers who could otherwise lose a crop. Contract production operations for seed corn, potatoes, snap beans, pickles and other specialty crops have become established in regions of Michigan with sufficient potential for irrigation for this very reason.
Given the attention to water issues in the past year, MSU Extension is offering a bus tour to the heart of central Wisconsin's sandy, irrigated production region on March 11-12 to explore the topic of water use in agriculture. Joining the tour is still possible, and we welcome registrations. Participants will gain insight on what a nearby state that faces similar though unique water challenges is doing to keep agriculture strong in the face of extreme weather, new water withdrawal regulations and competition from other industries for water usage. Registration is now open.
The two-day tour will feature stops at a number of farms, the University of Wisconsin Hancock Research Station, and talks with farmers, irrigation professionals, municipal officials involved with water management and University of Wisconsin educators, faculty and researchers. Attendees will have opportunities to learn about irrigated field crops, potatoes, snap beans and cranberries, as well as discuss tillage, cover cropping and irrigation technicalities along the way. The trip involves one overnight stay in Stevens Point, Wis. A registration fee covers bus fare, meals, lodging, fees and snacks for the ride to and from Wisconsin. Departure will be from the Kalamazoo area on early Monday morning.
The 2012 growing season presented challenges for crop irrigation and recreation in ways rarely seen. Parts of Cass, St. Joseph, Branch and Hillsdale counties reached the U.S. Drought Monitor's Extreme Drought (D3) rating in late July, historic drought levels that prompted such measures as opening of Conservation Reserve Program acreage for emergency haying under certain conditions and time constraints to potentially ease deficits in forage supply. Conflicts emerged in many drought-stricken communities in southern Michigan based on differing opinions about why surface waters declined. Some pointed to crop irrigation withdrawals while others sited evapotranspiration as being a greater contributor after record-breaking March temperatures and summer heat waves coupled with reduced rainfall. Also, while rainfall levels increased by late summer and into early fall, precipitation levels this winter are being watched closely with high hopes that surface waters will return to normal levels and that soil profiles have adequate moisture for the upcoming growing season.
Michigan is certainly not alone in dealing with water challenges in agriculture this year. Much of the Midwest is still in the grip of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. More than 88% of Wisconsin remains rated in some sort of drought status as of Feb. 12, compared to 40% of Michigan land area. The far western areas of the Corn Belt are far more drought-stricken states like Michigan and Wisconsin, though some much needed recent snowfall may provide relief to parched areas of Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa.
Consider joining MSU Extension on this exciting tour to learn more about water and agriculture, water conservation practices, and to meet leaders in irrigated crop production. See further details including online registration. For questions, contact Jon Zirkle in the St. Joseph County MSU Extension office at 269-467-5510.
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