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.”
One disadvantage is that Hill is locked into a 38-inch row spacing for a while. “That’s a limiting factor. It’s hard to see how things will work out 15 years from now. When you lay those pipes down, you’re committed. On a center pivot, if we go to 30-inch rows, I just plow it up and go to 30-inch rows.”
An RTK guidance system was crucial for laying the system out. “If you vary 2 inches each pass, by the time you get across the field, you’re running the tape under a row instead of in the middle. That’s where the guidance is important.”
They also have a geo-referenced map of the drip system layout, “so we can keep everything right on track. If we wanted to subsoil every other middle where we don’t have the tape, we have the capability to do that.”
Hill can do some shallow tillage above the drip, “but we’ve worked with no-till back since the early 1990s and we like it. Our biggest issue is too much residue when we go from corn to cotton. Of course, that may be a good problem to have.”
Hill raises corn and cotton on the drip field. “With EQIP, I have to raise a high residue crop one of every three years. I could go one year of corn and two of cotton. But with $4 corn and 50 cent cotton, I like the corn. So I produce cotton and corn on the field and flip flop them every year.”
Fertilizing through the drip tape is another advantage for Hill. “It’s the way to go. Once you get the program set, we fill up a tank which injects the nitrogen into the system. It’s very efficient because I don’t feel like we’re losing any nitrogen. The corn has a good dark green color to it and looks like it’s going to do real well as long as we don’t have pollination problems.”
The drip system can be programmed for up to seven days. “You program what sections you want to water, how long you want it to water and if you want to inject nitrogen. It seems complicated when you first start. But once you get used to it, it works well.”
Hill constructed a small building to house the filters, pumps and other components. Hill also had to wrap chicken wire around exposed valves around the field “because coyotes will chew the hoses off the valves to get to water.”
Hill ran water quality tests on the well water before the drip system was installed. “The iron content concerns me. We’re going to have some buildup of that in this system, and it could have an effect on the emitters 10 years out.”
Installation in late spring and early summer had a few drawbacks in addition to heat. “When we back-filled our furrows, our ends of the field never did settle. So when we were trying to pick it with a cotton picker, we tried to stay off the lines, but every now and then we’d get on one, and when we did, we’d push the line over in the dirt and pull it apart. When you put the water to it, you found that leak. If we would have installed it in the fall, the ground would have had time to settle around it.
“We have had quite a few leaks we’ve had to fix,” Hill said. “Some of it has been our doing, but I would like to see a better connector.”
But Hill expects the hard work will be well worth the effort come harvest. “With irrigation, the crop yield potential is more consistent. With the drip system, you can consistently make 200-plus bushel corn and 1,200-pound cotton.”