Todd Lewis has long history with irrigation — some of it magic and some of it tragic — but water is now an essential part of his efforts to reduce input costs, improve efficiency and further develop conservation on his large farming operation near Edenton, N.C.
Perhaps best known for winning peanut yield awards in a part of the state where high yields are common, his is a highly diversified operation that includes cotton, corn, soybeans and peanuts. In 2008, he won the coveted Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award and notes that irrigation was a big part of his farm management.
“We installed our first pivot in 1982,” he says, “and before we ever ran a drop of water through it, a tornado came across our farm and tore it to pieces. It looked like a field of steel spaghetti.”
Insurance didn’t cover the loss and his irrigation dealer was new at the time and didn’t have any way to cover the loss either. Together, the dealer and Lindsay (the system producer) worked with Lewis on a way to rebuild the pivot. It’s still operational on his farm today and he still buys pivots from the same dealer. In subsequent years, the dealer has been “most helpful in putting their engineering experience to use in designing the irrigation systems we now have,” Lewis says.
He now has 10 pivots on his home farm and several more on farms he rents in other parts of Gates County. “We have two outstanding irrigation dealers in our area — the Lindsay dealer we’ve worked with for so long and a Valley Irrigation dealer. We have pivots from both companies and both work well.”
Lewis now constructs the irrigation systems with his own work crew during the off season. “The company basically drops the system off at our farm, and we put it together. Having two good dealers works well; they each do things a little differently and have different ideas about how to make things better on our farm. I like having that diversity of ideas to help us when we run into challenges constructing or operating our systems.”
Knows how they work from the ground up
In 1985, he built a 17-span, 2,700 foot pivot that is capable of applying 2,250 gallons of water per minute. Not only is it big in size, it also proved to be big in teaching Lewis the importance of knowing how irrigation pivots work from the ground up.
“We learned from that project that irrigation is a 24/7 deal, and that to keep them running efficiently — especially during peak times in crop production — we need to be able to service them ourselves. Saving a little money is a side benefit, but having our own people on the farm to fix things when they break is much more valuable than the money we save.”
When he started installing pivots on his farm, Lewis had one diesel pump and one 12-inch pipeline from the pumping station to the pivot. Another valuable lesson he learned early on is that a larger pipe line is cheap compared to the increased horsepower consumption caused by friction loss trying to push too much water through a smaller diameter pipe.
His 10 systems all run off the same pumping station that was converted to electricity, but he has added multiple 10-inch and 12-inch lines. Reducing water pressure and horsepower, he says, has made the systems more efficient and less costly.
“On the big 17-span pivot we first installed, we used to run 120 psi of water pressure at the pump to get the needed 60 psi at the pivot. With the electric system and the enlarged pipelines, we can run 85 psi at the pump and still get the needed 60 psi at the pivot — that equates to a savings of 50 hp. Another big savings was the addition of a variable frequency drive connected to a pressure transducer to automatically control the speed of the electric pumps.
“I’m confident we can now run all our pivots easier and more efficiently than we used to run that first pivot plus two reels,” Lewis says. He still uses two large reels to irrigate areas of fields not covered by pivots, but says the reels are not nearly as efficient as the electric-powered pivots.
Two thirds under irrigation
He now irrigates about two-thirds of his operation, or about 2,000 acres. “Next to seed and land, water is our most valuable input. As commodity prices have increased over the past few years, so have input costs. With the cost of farming the land we have, I felt we needed be sure we could produce high yields.”
Over the past 10 years — some dry, some wet and some in-between — he estimates that his corn yield average has gained at least 50 bushels per acre under irrigation.
“I’ve had 30 bushel corn on this land without water, and I don’t want to see that again,” he says. “Irrigation brings consistency to yields, and that is what we need to be profitable.”
Cotton, he notes, doesn’t require as much water as corn, but the increase in yield from irrigation can be dramatic in some years. Over the past 10 years, he estimates his cotton yield has averaged close to a bale more per acre more under irrigation than for dryland.
For the first few years, peanuts proved to be a struggle under irrigation. White mold and other diseases kept yields down, but with the advent of Folicur and other triazole fungicides, peanut yields quickly climbed to 5,000 pounds per acre and remain at that level today under irrigation.
With today’s high input costs, Lewis says, high yields are a must, but being able to produce good yields and at the same time make the land better for future generations through sound conservation programs, is his long-range vision.
He works with Daniel Fowler and Webster Harrell, both licensed crop consultants, to implement a nutrient management plan with the Department of Conservation. Harrell does the sampling and Fowler develops a variable rate nutrient application plan.
Has to conserve inputs
“We have to conserve inputs, both from a cost standpoint and an environmental standpoint,” Lewis says. “When fertilizer was $200 a ton we could perhaps afford a blanket application, but even so, it wasn’t good for the environment. Now, with fertilizer more than $600 per ton, applying just what’s needed, and no more, is a must.”
He now applies potash, DAP and other nutrients with GPS-guided, variable rate spreaders. As part of his nutrient management plan, he applies nitrogen to some fields through the irrigation pivots. He has one fertigation pump located at the pumping station and can fertigate through any of the 10 pivots. “This is more efficient and less expensive than moving a fertilizer truck from field to field,” he notes.
Though he has a viable water source (Bennetts Creek) to run all his pivots, Lewis says in some dry years salt can be a problem in the water.
“We’re connected to the Albermarle Sound, and in extreme dry periods salt can back up into the water supply. I have tested during extreme dry times, and have adjusted watering to NCDA recommendations.”
Among his water-saving strategies is running two floating pumps in two drainage canals, which catch excess water during time of heavy rainfall. By using water that would typically be lost to leaching and evaporation, he is able to run two pivots most of the year.
He also recently became involved in an irrigation-sharing project with fellow farmer and friend, Dennis Trotman. They each farm a contiguous field and rather than installing two 40-acre pivots, they share one more efficient 80-acre system.
“It’s easy to do, because the costs can be easily calculated,” Lewis says. “Dennis and I split the cost of installing the system and operating it. It’s something that other farmers might want to look at, as we get more and more concerned about the availability of water.”