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Irrigation minimizes drought impact

After a serious drought hit this year, irrigation companies are having a hard time keeping up with the demand to put watering systems in area fields.
Justin Leighty
Posted on Dec. 7, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.

NEW PARIS — After the parched summer this area had, the Mathews family decided to upgrade some of their irrigation on farmland south of New Paris, and they’re not alone.

The farm family switched two labor-intensive towed sprinkler systems to pivot sprinklers, which still take effort, but much less.

“It’s much easier to move,” said Jeff Mathews, a member of the most recent generation of a family that’s been farming here for more than a century.

This year saw one of the worst droughts in that family history, but fortunately for the family, roughly three quarters of their ground is irrigated.

“This year was a good year to have watered. That takes a little pressure off,” Mathews said. In fact, it allowed them to double the state average of 100 bushels of corn per acre this year, and they got about 60 bushels of soybeans per acre, nearly one-and-a-half times the state’s average.

When they wanted to add new pivot systems this year, they tried their usual company, Phillips and Son in Bristol. However, “they’re popular this fall,” Mathews said.

That’s an understatement, said Charles Phillips. “This year in whole, we’re probably twice as busy,” he said, and they can’t get to customers in decent time.”I’ve had three calls wanting estimates on irrigation this morning, probably had a couple yesterday. That’s just the way it’s going,” he said.

“Coupled with the draught, the high commodity price, the input costs are up, so it’s a gamble” to raise crops, he said. “Irrigation will take one segment of the gambling out. They can put the nutrients there, they can put the plant seed population there, but weather is the limiting factor,” he said. Irrigation helps mitigate that.

The development costs vary based on a lot of factors, but they run from $950 to $2,300 per acre, Phillips said.

Jeff Burbrink, horticulture educator with the Purdue Cooperative Extension Service in Elkhart County, said “part of the issue this year is the drought, people saw what irrigation did. If you had an irrigation system this year, you probably paid for it in one year. The difference between zero and 200 bushels is huge,” he said.

“By having irrigation it kind of guarantees you a crop and is kind of an insurance policy for all the money you spend on herbicides, fertilizer,” Burbrink said.

Livestock growers who pasture their animals also added irrigation this year.

“We do have ample ground water around here,” Burbrink said. “The biggest issue they have is water with shallow wells when it gets this dry. The water table around here is still way low.”

He added, “I think the ag community is looking or hoping for a lot of moisture this year, something that would soak in.”

Mathews agreed, saying, “If we don’t get moisture this winter and in the spring, next year’s going to be even worse.”

Though November was dry and December has been unseasonably warm so far, the Indiana State Climate Office said it isn’t time for farmers to panic. Ken Scheeringa, associate state climatologist based at Purdue, said in a written forecast that the weather variability is likely to continue through the winter.

“Our weather is going to continue to flip back and forth between dry and wet, but winter can be known for that. Don’t get too locked into one mode,” Scheeringa said. “Farmers like to look ahead to spring planting, but a lot can happen between now and April. We have four months for soils to fully recharge and our wet, early fall had already started this process.

“The combination of low winter evaporation rates and the harvest of corn and soybeans behind us means soil water demand is lower at this time of year, giving soils a chance to catch up. Even with little to no rain, soils aren’t likely to lose too much moisture.”

Thursday’s update from the U.S. drought monitor showed northern Indiana is again in drought conditions. Goshen is 3.7 inches below normal for the fall and 10.77 inches below normal for the year, according to the National Weather Service in North Webster.

However, Scheeringa said history is on our side.

“Historically, we haven’t had two significant droughts back to back, in part because of our geography directly north of the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. “The Gulf is a major source of our moisture and it’s really hard to shut off that water supply for an extended time. Our research shows the longest Indiana droughts have lasted about 18 months. The state can have frequent minor droughts, but if they happen in the colder months the impacts are less than if they happen during the growing season.”

The National Weather Service predicts rain today and Sunday, calling for scattered snow showers Monday.



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