Engineer stresses irrigation needs in Alabama

Alabama once again finds itself on the end of a 50-state list. Compared with other states, particularly neighboring Georgia, Alabama is lagging behind in the number of acres under irrigation.

As Calvin Perry, a University of Georgia research and Extension engineer, stressed recently, Alabama is “small time right now,” raising only about 150,000 acres of irrigated crops, compared with some 1.2 million irrigated acres in Georgia.

But Perry, speaking at the Precision Ag and Field Crops Day, in Cherokee, didn’t come to Alabama to condemn farmers — or to praise their counterparts in Georgia — but only to underscore how much better off Alabama farmers would be if they invested fully in irrigation.

“In Georgia, we consider irrigation primary and rainfall secondary,” Perry says. “If we get some rain, that’s great, but we’re not depending on it.”

This ambivalent attitude about rainfall did not come easily, but only after years of investing in reservoirs and distribution systems that enable farmers to use water even during times of the year when it is often unavailable, such as mid-summer.

After years of experience, Georgia farmers now look at irrigation as “something that is going to help them get their money back in a tough year,” Perry says, adding that this is the reason why it is now considered a routine farming tool. But that’s not to say irrigating comes cheaply, even in cases where it’s being pumped from a free source.

“You’ve got to pay the pumping cost, and if you’re pumping with diesel, you know how expensive that can be,” Perry says.

On the other hand, making the transition to an electric pump can help farmers attain a four-to-one cost advantage.

Other facets of irrigation don’t come cheaply either. Center pivots can run from $35,000 to $60,000, and this includes only the hardware, not the cost of running water through the system.

Another key concern associated with irrigation is making sure water application is maximized to the fullest possible degree, Perry stresses.

“Obviously, if you put in a system that does a full circle, your per-acre cost is going to be much less than if you use a windshield wiper apparatus,” he says, adding that farmers should work with their pivot dealers to match their systems with their soil type.

“If you’ve got soil that needs a slow application, you want to avoid runoff.”

Farmers always should take care to ensure their irrigation systems provide them “with the biggest bang for the buck,” he says.

Scheduling is also critical — a lesson that has been driven home to him time and again working with growers in southwestern Georgia where sandy soils prevail and where some 90 percent of pivot irrigation systems operate.

“We’re still struggling to get farmers (in southern Georgia) to schedule better,” he says, adding that many only irrigate when they begin seeing stress. “Then they’re really affecting their bottom line,” he says.

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