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.
The Deans plant their corn and soybeans on 38-inch rows. Soybeans are planted in twin rows, where the Deans have seen an increase of 5 bushels to 7 bushels per acre. Corn, which has not responded as well to twin-row planting on the Dean farm, is planted in single rows.
In late June, the Deans were within a few days of laying out all their flexible polyethylene tubing for furrow and flood irrigation, and were happy to see crops starting to take off.
They use the same machine to roll out the tubing and pick it up for recycling after the season. “It used to take a three-man to go pick the pipe up, load it up on trailer and haul it to town or dispose of it,” Ronny Jr. said. “Now that we have the machine, it takes one man. We take it to one central spot on each farm, and we call Delta Plastics (the manufacturer of the tubing), and they bring their trucks out, pick it up and recycle it (into industrial garbage bags).
“I like the idea of recycling the pipe. It serves a great purpose. We don’t have pipe sitting everywhere like we used to.”
The Deans are looking closely at creating additional water savings with a new software program called PipePlanner, which was developed by former University of Arkansas irrigation engineer Phil Tacker, now with Delta Plastics. The program is a more user-friendly version of PHAUCET, or pipe hole and universal crown evaluation tool, developed by engineers with the National Resources Conservation Service in Missouri. The PipePlanner program “will tell you what size holes need to be punched and where, depending on flow rates and other variables. That’s probably something that we want to look into to do a more efficient job with what we have,” Ronny Jr. said.
The Deans are also using cost-share programs administered through NRCS to further improve the land for watering efficiency and water conservation. “It’s really helped us,” Russ said. “We see ourselves as the middle man between our landowners and NRCS, and we can show that it provides a benefit for everyone.”
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The Deans will spend a little extra to put down multiple lines of flexible tubing in a field to reduce labor during irrigation season. “It’s a lot faster and easier to swap your pipe around than it is to plug holes. When you have multiple lines, one man can do the work of three,” Ronny Jr. said.
The Deans marvel at how far irrigation has come over the last few decades, especially the last 10. “Back when our father and grandfather farmed, they had 1,000 acres and plenty of labor. Now we farm 6,000 acres with six men,” Ronny Jr. said.”
“And we’re doing three times as much irrigation than they ever dreamed of,” Russ added. “We’re more efficient and do a better job of timing our irrigations. That translates into better yields and lower diesel costs.”
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