Despite a wet, cool spring and a late crop, optimism is finally starting to return to the Dean family farm in the form of heat units and the steady flow of irrigation water across fields of corn, soybeans and rice.

This season, wet weather extended far into the spring for the Deans and many other Mid-Southerners, spreading out the planting season and taxing patience. When the time did come to plant, the Deans had to be ready to roll, and depended heavily on tractor guidance to extend their hours in the field.

Ronny Dean Jr., his brother Russ, and father Ronny Sr., farm about 6,000 acres of corn, soybeans, rice and some wheat in Lonoke, Jefferson and Phillips counties in Arkansas. About 95 percent of the Dean’s cropland is irrigated.

“In the South, you can’t go to the bank with non-irrigated land anymore,” Ronny Jr. said. “With our production costs and our seed costs and with our inputs being so high, the gamble of non-irrigated land just doesn’t work anymore.”

Over the last 20 years, advances in irrigation technology as well as improvements the Deans have undertaken in land have significantly increased their watering efficiency, lowered costs and increased yields.

The rising cost of diesel fuel has made irrigation efficiency even more important for the Deans, whose wells are roughly half electric and half diesel. “When fuel is $3.50 a gallon, it doesn’t take much fuel to make a big difference in the bottom line,” Russ said.

Leveling fields is another way to increase efficiency with flexible tubing, Ronny Jr. said. “In a dip, those 10 or so rows will water out a lot faster than on higher ground, and you can run water out the bottom. By making land as level as you can, you get better water distribution, which means it waters out more evenly and you don’t pump as much, which also saves fuel.”

The Deans have seen a big increase in efficiency in rice where they’ve gone to side-inlet flood irrigation using flexible tubing. “Our fields are mostly 40-acre and 80-acre fields that have been precision leveled into roughly 10-acre paddies,” Ronny Jr. said. “We run the tubing down and put the adjustable Blumhardt gates in. You can pump right into the paddy that needs water rather than starting at top and going down, which takes so long.”

In rice and soybeans, the Deans zero grade some of their fields for flood irrigation, which is their most efficient system, “but the precision leveled fields with straight levees using tubing is a close second,” Ronny Jr. said.