Like most Tennessee farmers, John Lindamood knows he can’t control everything about his row-crop operation. There are insects, for one, and disease for another. There are fluctuating commodity prices, and, of course, there’s the weather. But Lindamood has joined a growing number of farmers in the state who are investing in irrigation to remove one of those unknowns from the equation.
Worth the Investment
“Anything we can do to stabilize our operation helps us do a much better job of maximizing yields and making the most efficient use of our crop protection materials, all of which helps us to do a better job of budgeting and planning for capital investment down the road,” Lindamood says. “Irrigation is something we can do to create more reliability in the yields and the overall operation. And the success of the farming operation has ripple effects across the economies of individual communities across the state, from seed suppliers to bankers to insurance agents to restaurants.”
Of the 5,000 acres of corn, beans, wheat, cotton and milo that Lindamood farms in Lake County, 2,000 acres are irrigated. He uses pivot irrigation, which is a system of metal frames on rolling wheels with a center pivot. Electric motors move the frames in a circle, spraying water over the field.
On average, such a system costs about $1,000 per acre for equipment and electricity, and can cover between 120 and 200 acres.
“My father had four of these types of irrigation rigs in place in the 1970s,” Lindamood says. “They lasted 30 years before we had to dismantle and replace them. We added additional rigs, as well. In fact, in the last four years, we’ve added another five rigs for a total of 12.”
Increase in Irrigation
Irrigation is becoming more commonplace in Tennessee, says Brian Leib, an associate professor of biosystems engineering and soil science at the University of Tennessee.
“In 2007, there were about 25 pivot systems installed across the state,” he says. “That number has increased every year since, and in 2012, there were 270 systems installed, which represents about 40,000 acres going into irrigation each year. That’s over a tenfold increase from 2007. At the same time, we’ve gone from one irrigation equipment dealer in the state to three.”
Why? Because it makes economic sense, Leib says. First, it helps ensure a good harvest. “The yield bumps can be substantial,” he explains. “In West Tennessee, for instance, it can be 50 extra bushels an acre of corn, 18 to 20 more bushels of beans per acre, and up to 300 pounds more cotton per acre.” And in a year of drought, like 2012, those numbers can be even higher.
In addition to the yield increases, Lindamood explains that irrigation helps farmers better utilize crop protection materials, like herbicides and fertilizers.
“If we put out nitrogen and potash in the soil, and we don’t have the water that the nutrients need, we have leftover fertilizer in the soil,” he says. “If we can control the amount of water through irrigation, we can achieve uptake of the nutrients and use them more efficiently. The same is true with herbicides, which depend on rainfall for activation. So not only does irrigation help us from a production standpoint, it also provides important environmental benefits.”
Lindamood also explains that advancements in irrigation equipment and farmers’ diligent attention to water usage are part of the agriculture industry’s commitment to conserving this important natural resource.
“Sprinkler packages are much more precise and tailored today, and we have better tools to manage our water usage,” he says. “We do not carelessly use this important natural resource. We target our use, and we constantly monitor it in an effort to measure the benefits and allocate the water where it will do the most good.”