Irrigation Season 101 in the Texas Panhandle for the Farm Curious
Planting is over and our crops are up! It’s always a huge relief and a rewarding experience to see the fresh green lines of new plants popping out of the ground. We haven't had any storms to threaten our crops with hail, or heavy rain that could wash away small seedlings. The skies have been bright and sunny and the temperature has warmed up nicely, providing us with the “heat units” we need (Heat Units are a standard of measure used to calculate Growing Degree Days, or GDD’s, which farmers use to estimate plant maturity and come up with projections).
So it should be smooth sailing right?!
...Except we live in the Texas Panhandle, and just like our stereotypical tumbleweeds would suggest, things be windy ‘round here. Take those warm temperatures with our recent lack of thunderstorms… pair them with five consecutive days of 30+ mph steady winds… and things don’t look so idyllic.
Hot, dry, and windy. It takes decades of experience and an incredible amount of work to make sure baby plants can thrive in such an arid environment. We’re basically living in a desert right now, and there’s a reason deserts aren’t known for their yield potential. In our area, at least, row crop farmers like us rely heavily on underground water resources (which are precious and NON-renewable -- unless we’re talking thousands of years). We also rely on decades of innovation in the field of growing things where you SHOULD NOT be able to grow in our climate.
Why would we try to do something like that? Remember that water stuff that we mentioned a second ago? Just like oil, underground water reservoirs are among the most precious resources for human beings on planet Earth. And human beings have something called… economics! Supply and demand, right? In our modern society, for the most part, the free market determines what it wants, and it’s the job of the production sector to provide the supply.
So Farmer A has control over a scarce resource(water), and a certain set of capabilities. How he uses that scarce resource will be determined by the price of any commodity he or she is capable of growing, and the costs associated with trying to grow that commodity.
All this is to say that if we could provide a living for 10 families growing tumbleweeds, we would!! Because it would be easy, and we probably wouldn’t need to pump any precious water. Turns out though, nobody wants tumbleweeds… so we have to grow the crops with the best profit margin (price – cost), that use the LEAST amount of water (if you’re concerned with sustainability).
And you have to be CAREFUL and EFFICIENT with your resource!
Now, let’s talk about a couple ways farmers can be careful with water.
If you have a keen eye and any experience driving through America looking at corn, you may notice in these pictures that our crop rows are closer together than most others.. We plant our crops (corn and cotton) in rows that are 15 inches apart. Bryce’s father and uncle talked their parents into trying this crazy idea 30 years ago, and there are several reasons we continue to plant this way. One of the big ones is preventing water evaporation.
Here’s the idea; the faster you can get the leaves to cover up all the bare dirt in between the other plants, the more water you save. Sunlight on bare soil quickly evaporates water on the surface, preventing the water from soaking in and reaching the ROOTS. Which is kind of the whole point people. Also, at the end of the year, the organic trash left over from harvest is more evenly distributed, and (if you leave it in the field) provides better protection from wind erosion, and helps the soil retain moisture during the off-season as well! Double win.
Here’s the down side: you need a lot of specific “narrow row” equipment to make all this work, which is a lot more expensive (because nobody plants this way), and a lot harder to find (because nobody plants this way). Also, more rows mean more moving parts, and more moving parts means… more broken parts.
Ahh, farmer physics.
When the rubber meets the road, though, most efficiency in water usage comes from how you actually pump and apply it to the surface.
For the most part, we use something called a center pivot irrigation system. You’ve probably seen one. Basically there is a vertical pipe in the middle of a field that does a hard 90º elbow to horizontal, connects to a bunch of tractor tires and drives itself around in a circle throwing water out as it goes (like I said... center pivot). These were an improvement over older systems that mostly relied on flooding trenches in order to move water around, which left large pools of water exposed to evaporation, and did an overall poor job of keeping the water where it did anyone any good. Center pivots can be incredibly efficient, IF they are set up to operate that way.
Quiz Question: How high should the water pipe and support structure on a center pivot be?
Answer: Higher than your crop, you dummy (corn is tall).
BUT, if you’re throwing water around from 20 feet up in the air, AND the wind is blowing (which it will be), AND the sun is out in all it’s summer-ness, guess where the water goes... Answer: Not where you want it to go.
So a sprinkler should have hose that drops LOW to the ground, and be sprayed in LARGE water droplets that are heavy enough to fall quickly to the ground and soak in. Older systems sprayed water directly from the overhead pipe at high pressure in an effort to spread the water out as much as possible. This was intended to prevent water from running out of the field in tiny rivers (we call that run-off), but mostly they just wasted a lot of water.
Side Note: There are other ways to prevent run off, typically having to do with the spray pattern you apply the water with, and how much water you try to apply at one time.
That brings us to Part 2 of an efficient row crop irrigation system!
Attached to most irrigation systems is something commonly known as a pump. Pumps produce water from the underground reservoirs and send it through to the sprinkler.
Typically there are two things that you don’t want if you are pumping water out of your aquifer:
A) Leaks (self-explanatory)
B) A broken pivot attached to your (pumping) pump.
To address the last one, we have physical underground wires going from each center pivot control panel to any pumps that are tied to that particular pivot. We’re talking thousands of feet of underground wire (alongside thousands of feet of underground pipe). Fun fact; Pivots break down all the time, so these wires are there to automatically shut down pumps when the pivot stops moving! Pretty neat, huh. Now-a-days they even have wireless systems that use radio signals to shut things off, but they accomplish the same thing.
As for Point A, we make sure to fix leaky connections, split pipes, broken drops, or lost nozzles on a daily basis though-out the growing season. For us, it’s enough work to keep several people fully employed for those few months, and then it’s on to the next phase! We take it very seriously, and we want everyone to know that we care about those precious resources. We depend on them, and will continue to spend time advocating for modern practices and responsible water use. In the end we know we’re all slurping out of the same jug.
I hope somebody reads this and learns a little bit about farming in today’s world. There’s a lot of confusion out there about this stuff, and understandably so. Farming is unendingly complicated, intricate, mind-boggling, and multifaceted. But it’s also incredibly important, so thanks for being interested in what we do!
PS. Pray for rain.