Putting in an underground drip irrigation system on 40 acres in the June-July heat of 2008 was probably not the best installation timing for Gates, Tenn., producer Jeff Hill. But the lush green of this year’s corn and cotton crops are erasing most of the unpleasant memories.

Hill farms 300 acres of corn, 1,100 acres of cotton, 550 acres of soybeans and 150 acres of wheat and double-cropped soybeans with the help of two full-time hands.

His daughter, Heather Hill, who is headed to Mississippi State University this fall to begin a major in biological engineering, helps out with scouting, while son, Robert, drives tractors and helps with maintaining equipment.

The farm fields of west Tennessee are not always conducive to irrigation, Hill notes. “Our biggest challenge is that when families in earlier generations divided farmland up, they didn’t divide it up for irrigation purposes. It’s a challenge to have farms big enough to put pivots on.”

Nonetheless, irrigation is becoming more and more crucial for west Tennessee producers, especially when drought years can take such a toll on a crop, especially corn. “There’s just too much risk in dryland corn with our input costs,” Hill said. “Dryland, if you make 120 bushels an acre, you’re just barely breaking even. In our area, it’s hard to get to that mark without irrigation.”

The farm is about 10 percent irrigated today, and includes drip, center pivot and furrow irrigation. Furrow irrigation on the farm began in the early 1990s on a spur of the moment decision by Jeff’s father, Bobby Hill. “He put in a well for spray water, so we wouldn’t have to depend on city water,” Jeff said.

“One summer, it was really hot, and he decided to get some rollout pipe and use the well to furrow irrigate a 40-acre field. We knew we had too much fall on the field, but since we’ve been doing that, there have been very few years when it has not made a difference in the cotton crop. We’ve seen as much as a half-bale or more increase in cotton, and we knew we weren’t doing it as efficiently as we could.”

Bobby’s decision to irrigate the field paid off again several years down the road, with the introduction of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. EQIP funds are available for fields with an irrigation history if a new irrigation system can increase water-use efficiency.

“EQIP paid almost $400 per acre of the installation costs for the drip system, which made trying it a viable option.” Hill said the costs of installation on the 40-acre field were around $800 to $900 per acre, with Hill supplying the labor. “We hired O.K. Alexander out of Huntsville, Ala., to lead the installation, along with Robin Franks (with Netafim Irrigation, based in Fresno, Calif.).”

Several teenagers were also employed, including Jeff’s son, Robert, to help on the installation.

Work began June 10 and the tape was installed by July 1,” Hill said. “But my well didn’t work out because of water quality issues, and I had to punch another hole. That hole collapsed, and then the driller got injured. We finally got it hooked into a new well and running by July 21. It still made a difference in the cotton crop that year. We had some 2.5-bale cotton.”

The tapes are installed down every other middle, 12-inches deep and 76 inches apart. “The tape goes down easy,” Hill says. “It’s just a lot of manual labor hooking each tape up to a feeder line. It’s very labor intensive. But once you forget how much trouble it was to put in, it’s a good system.”