Some Iowa farmers turning to irrigation to help crops

Investment return in systems usually takes 7 years

Amana Society Farms assistant crop production manager Mike Williams works to fix an irrigation system after it unexpectedly shut down while watering corn behind the farm office Tuesday in High Amana. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)
Amana Society Farms assistant crop production manager Mike Williams works to fix an irrigation system after it unexpectedly shut down while watering corn behind the farm office Tuesday in High Amana. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

In a typical year, Iowa farmers rely on Mother Nature for enough rain to satisfy needs of the state’s corn and soybean crops.

This has been anything but a typical year, causing some growers to supplement the meager rainfall with irrigation.

“Some of our corn looks decent and some does not,” said Johnson County farmer Dick Oberman of rural Hills, who invested this year in an irrigation system for the first time in his 50 years of farming.

The $70,000 unit irrigates 70 acres of corn that Oberman grows in Muscatine County.

Standard investment return for such an irrigation system is seven years, but with corn hitting a record $8 per bushel, Oberman and others irrigating in the midst of widespread drought could reap the benefits sooner.

“It’s going to make a substantial payoff this year,” he said.

Because of the state’s usually ample rainfall, Iowa farmers traditionally have not turned to irrigation to water crops.

In 2008, the most recent data available, 162,838 acres on 527 Iowa farms were irrigated, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, well below any neighboring state.

The total reflects fruit and vegetable crops in addition to corn and soybeans.

That compares to western states like California, where 7.3 million acres were irrigated on 45,136 farms, and Nebraska, which marked the highest number of acres irrigated: more than 8.3 million on 14,812 farms.

Nationwide, nearly 55 million farmland acres were irrigated in 2008, up 2.4 million acres, or 4.6 percent, from 2003.

A new census will be conducted this year for Iowa’s 92,300 farms.

This year vs. averages

Iowa State University agricultural meteorologist Elwynn Taylor said the state averages 32 to 34 inches of rain annually.

Corn needs 25 inches for record yields and 20 inches for average yields, Taylor noted.

Total rainfall so far this year has been less than 12 inches in Cedar Rapids to just under 14 inches in Waterloo.

“So few years does Iowa really need irrigation,” Taylor said, suggesting farmers would do better to put the money they would spend on costly irrigation systems toward crop insurance.

Plaques in the Amana Farms office highlight awards won for high corn yields, including one for 249.72 bushels per acre.

The Amana Society’s 7,000 acres of farmland won’t yield those records this year, said crop manager David Cunninham, but 415 acres of corn and 350 acres of soybeans should have decent harvests.

Those are the acres under pivot irrigation, which sprays water on the thirsty fields from systems installed in 1989, after the last major drought from 1987 to 1988.

Cunninham said corn could average 50 to 100 acres more per bushel in the irrigated fields and soybeans could yield 20 more bushels per acre than non-irrigated fields.

The automated units, which tap into shallow aquifers and slowly rotate through rows, don’t produce any runoff.

“We can’t get it on fast enough,” Cunningham said.

‘Stark difference’

Assistant crop manager Mike Williams said non-irrigated corn viewed during a helicopter ride this week looked yellowish-brown to sickly gray.

“There’s a stark difference between the irrigated and the non-irrigated fields,” he said, pointing to green, uniform plants under the water spray.

Wells are an added expense for farmers considering irrigation, along with water use permits from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Having a water source is another consideration, said Greg Thessen, director of the Iowa field office for the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Thessen said seed corn and fields with sandy soil near major rivers are more likely to be irrigated in Iowa than those with better soil. Farmers without the systems wouldn’t be able to help this year’s crops due to the lag time in ordering equipment, he added.

“It’s not something you can do on the spur of the moment,” Thessen said.

It can take six weeks for the factory to deliver large irrigation systems, said manager Deb Proctor of Pace Supply in Fairfax. Units there can cost up to $70,000.

Jeffrey Laudin, a manager at Valmont Industries in Valley, Neb., said farmers typically wait until the season ends to make major purchases, such as the irrigation systems manufactured by Valmont.

“The drought highlights to farmers who could irrigate that they could be faring better,” he said.

Gary Knight, who farms near Marion, said he is irrigating for the first time in 15 years of growing sweet corn.

The $30,000 hose reel he purchased from Pace Supply can be moved where needed, Knight said, noting he is trying to save about 35 acres.

High temperatures and wind made fields this week “feel like a convection oven,” he said.

“If I don’t (irrigate,) the second half of the season will be nothing,” Knight said, adding the process “is a lot of work.” “It’s a lot easier if Mother Nature does it.”

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.