Irrigating cotton makes sense and “cents,” says Amanda Smith, University of Georgia department of agricultural and applied economics in Tifton. Smith discussed the economics of irrigating cotton at the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Orlando, Fla. She said advantages include increased yield, reduced yield variability and improved profit potential.

“But irrigation also comes with costs,” she said. Initial investment in installation and equipment, as well as ongoing operating costs can be expensive. Based on state crop production budgets, a typical diesel-powered, center pivot irrigation system covering 160 acres in Georgia would cost $153,000 at installation. Total operating cost of that system would be $148.84 per acre per year.

An electric-powered unit would take a $140,000 initial investment and a $73 per acre annual operating cost.

A Texas center pivot system operating on natural gas would require initial installation costs of $170,000 and an annual operating cost of $111.97. Furrow irrigation in Texas costs $137,300 to install and $141.23 annual per acre operating costs with natural gas power. Labor costs are higher with furrow systems, Smith said.

The electric-pivot unit is the least expensive. She said natural gas-powered pivot irrigation in Texas requires less field preparation than furrow irrigation.

But the yield advantages can be significant as well. Arkansas budgets, for instance, show average dryland yield at 800 pounds per acre. That jumps to 1,200 pounds per acre under both furrow and pivot irrigation systems.

In Georgia, dryland yield average is 700 pounds and with pivot irrigation, 1,200 pounds per acre. Dryland yield in Texas averages 470 pounds; furrow jumps to 1,120 pounds and center pivot systems bump yield to 1,280 pounds per acre.

Smith said producers should weigh yield increases against total production costs when considering irrigation systems. She also recommends producers look at system efficiency. “Subsurface drip irrigation is the most water efficient system,” she said. “Furrow irrigation is the least efficient.”

Other factors also affect irrigation decisions, she said. Water availability will be a crucial issue as farmers determine if they can add irrigation. Availability also may affect the type and size of a system.

Energy sources and price also could influence irrigation decisions. As she pointed out, natural gas systems in Texas are cheaper than diesel in Georgia and electric-power is also less expensive in Georgia.

Labor availability could influence irrigation decisions. Furrow irrigation, for instance, is much more labor intensive than center pivots.

Cotton price will be a significant factor in investment decisions, she said. Financing availability, too, could play a role in system selection. Crop rotation also has a bearing on what kind of system may be the most appropriate. Irrigation efficiency, especially as water resources become more limited, should be a high priority.

“Cotton farmers can use irrigation systems to increase yield and profit potential,” Smith said. Yield advantage ranges from 180 to 850 pounds per acre. Costs increase by $190 to $390 per acre.

To make the investment work, Smith said, farmers need to produce an additional 155 to 488 pounds per acre with cotton selling for 80 cents a pound. “Applying 12 to 18 acre-inches of irrigation may make a significant difference in net return.”

Farmers also use irrigation to manage risk. “Irrigation may reduce yield variability but increase financial risk,” Smith said.

Smith said farmers should check their own state Extension budgets to develop specific irrigation needs and costs.