“We went ahead and spent the time and money to get some land graded or we quit farming certain fields,” says Jack. “I was growing early narrow-row Group 4’s and some of the land didn’t fit into my scheme. I’m not saying growing dryland soybeans can’t work but at current prices it’s very difficult.”
Jack, who spoke at the Tri-State Soybean Forum in Dumas, Ark., still grows a few irrigated Group 4’s. However, his primary crop is early-planted Group 5’s.
“This year, my operation seemed to be the only one that was wet early,” said Jack, who farms near Belzoni, Miss. “We historically plant our soybeans before planting cotton and after corn.
“We irrigate out of fish ponds, wells and lakes. We use hard pipe and run water uphill and downhill. Not everything is perfect. We use basically every irrigation system including pivots, which we have 1,400 acres under. We have about the same acreage that we row water.”
Most of Jack’s crop is in a rotation. He grows corn and beans, corn and cotton, and rice and beans. People often ask why Jack grows corn on cotton land. The land, he says, isn’t that good as it’s “pretty heavy buckshot.”
As far as scheduling, Jack simply starts watering when it gets dry and doesn’t look back. “With pivots, my philosophy is to start early, go hard and hope they don’t break down. Pivots work wonderfully for the first 5 to 10 years. The next 10 to 15 years, pivots are a bit tougher with maintenance. My pivots are around 22 years old and they’re reasonably successful.”
One thing that’s a bit of a trick with pivots is the way to deal with wheel tracking. Jack takes a rice levee plow, follows the track and plows a levee up. The pivots then walk on the levee and keep out of deep ruts.
“With all our pipe – hard or flexible – we try and get all our motors serviced at the same time so we’re ready to go early. We try to get our flexible pipe rolled out on a rainy day.”
The irrigation system Jack has set up is, in great measure, a necessity because of his labor force. “It’s hard to get anyone to work Saturdays. On Sunday mornings, I’m usually alone. So we try to start early in the week. If it looks like we might need water on the crop over the next week to 10 days, we start early. We’ve found in row watering that if we run water when it isn’t too dry, the water moves quicker and gets off quicker. That means we don’t over water. I think it’s better to run a little early then to wait a little late. Get the water on the field before the cracks are able to open too wide.”
Jack has a sign on his shop door that reads, “’Think, man, think.’ I always want to know where the crop will be 10 days down the road. Watch the forecasts. There’s a big difference in water needs at 75 degrees and at 100 degrees.”
For the last two years, Jack has used some large, ‘H’ valves that he had made. “What we do is divide certain fields into thirds. We run one line of flexible pipe all the way down and lay it on the ground. Then we run another line in front of it about two-thirds of the way down the field. We then use a big ‘H’ valve in the back line and front line. The ‘H’ valve allows us to put water in three spots without ever opening or closing a gate.”
By going with this system, Jack has been able to take out two or three people out of his watering crew.
“I don’t know if the system is any cheaper. But by the end of the summer when things are wild – someone is trying to harvest corn, someone is involved in something else, the football season starts and my irrigation crew goes back to school – the beans still need to be watered and I’m left by myself. This lets me water the beans myself because there’s a pin in the valve. By using that, I can move water to another row.”
It does cost a little more. How much more? It’s really simple, says Jack, if you’ve got a field where the pipe cost $5 an acre, you’ll need to raise that to about $10 per acre. Plus you have to pay for the valve, which can be constructed out of steel or plastic. Jack’s are aluminum so they’re easier to move.
“The big thing about irrigation is management. The worst thing I ever heard someone say regarding this is, ‘Man, I don’t want to worry about watering these cheap soybeans.’ Well, if you’re not thinking about watering soybeans in July, you probably shouldn’t have planted and started watering them at all. If you’re going to water beans, you should start planning early – get everything laid out and dug. Once that’s done, you can hope you never have to run the system. But even with an extremely wet year, I still ended up irrigating everything at least once.”