Drought places sharper focus on irrigation

After watching the devastating effects of yet another drought, central Alabama's Jay Minter doesn't see much future in dryland farming. "I love farming, but I'm in it to make a good living," says Minter, who grows cotton, corn and grain sorghum in Dallas County. "I don't like dryland farming. Since 1995, we've had only one good cotton crop. My faith is in water, and I don't want to keep torturing myself."

Minter planted 2,010 acres of cotton this year and destroyed about 160 of those due to poor stands. About 760 acres are irrigated by seven center pivot systems.

"Some of the older farmers say this is the driest year since 1954, and no one around here can remember 12 straight months of drought. We caught a few showers, but the ground has been parched," he says.

Like other farmers in the lower Southeast, Minter isn't expecting much from his remaining dryland acres. "Some was defoliated by mid-August. I'd be happy if we could pick a bale from the dryland - we'll probably get about 300 to 400 pounds from a lot of it.

"The dryland crop isn't physiologically mature because of the drought. On the other hand, the irrigated cotton is mature, with a nice red color. The bolls are pop-ping open, the lint is fluffy and it should be very easy to pick."

Minter's center pivots have operated continuously this summer, applying 16 to 17 inches of irrigation water. "Normally, we'd expect to put on about 10 to 12 inches of irrigation water, and we've already applied half a foot more than that," he says.

When he returned to the farm from college in the fall of 1995, Minter was committed to irrigation. He put in his first center pivot prior to the 1997 growing season, covering 65 acres.

"We wanted to get accustomed to irrigation before we moved on to a larger project. After a visit to Australia in the summer of 1998, there was no doubt in my mind that it was time to get moving in a hurry towards more irrigation."

From the fall of 1998 through the spring of 1999, Minter put in five center pivots covering about 630 crop acres. The monumental project including moving several thousand yards of dirt at a cost of more than $10,000.

"We're pumping all of our water from the Alabama River. Since we're about 15 miles below the dam, the river has a much lower level where we're located. We had to dig down quite a ways to locate our pumping site close enough to the river for pumping. We could have gone with electricity and submersible pumps, but the power company wanted about $100,000 to move the lines, and the pumps would have cost another $100,000.

"We spent from $25,000 to $30,000 on the pit for the pumps. This included moving the earth, building the concrete pad for the pumps and covering the bank with netting to protect it from erosion. Three pumps supply water to the five center pivots."

Minter estimates that it takes about four to five crops to recoup the cost of an irrigation system. "It depends on how much of a yield boost you'd expect to get from an irrigated crop over a dryland crop. In the worst case, you'd probably still be looking at seven years, and that's not a bad investment. I usually don't want to put money into anything if I can't get it back in four to five years."

A profit can be made from irrigated cropland even in the driest years, he contends. "The major cost of irrigation is the up-front cost of buying and installing the system. The operating cost is minuscule. We still can make money, even when we're irrigating as much as we are this year. We're using one and a half to two gallons of diesel fuel for each acre-inch of water, so it's costing us only $8 or so per acre to run the system."

Minter's family has been on some of the same Dallas County land since 1830, and he sees more irrigation as the only option if he is to continue growing row crops.

"We're currently farming about 2,500 acres," notes Minter. "Within five years, I'd like to be farming about 1,800 to 2,000 acres, with almost all of it being irrigated. I don't foresee our dryland fields as being dryland for very much longer."

As he looks towards expanding his irrigation capability, Minter is exploring a non-traditional option for Southern row crops - drip irrigation.

"With the exception of one or two spots, we've gone about as far as we can go economically with center pivots. We've traveled to Georgia to look at sub-surface drip irrigation systems where they're burying the tape about 12 inches under the ground.

"We're looking at the possibility of irrigating 500 to 600 acres with drip irrigation. Beyond the cost of supplying water to the field, the system would require filters, buried tape product, fittings, valves and gauges. The materials would cost about $500 per acre, and we probably could do most of the installation ourselves during the winter.

"As far as getting water to the fields, we're evaluating several options, including pumping directly to the fields from the river or wells, or building a reservoir, filling it with water and using it to supply irrigation water to the fields."

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