Subsurface irrigation grows in response to drought
The most severe and extensive drought in at least 25 years continues. According to the USDA, about 80 percent of agricultural land experienced drought in 2012, making it more extensive than any since the 1950s. Some 2,000 U.S. counties were declared disaster areas by the USDA.
It’s the kind of weather event that gets the attention of agricultural producers. And devastating as it may be to Nebraska farmers, it’s bound to be good for Colby Gardine’s business.
As branch manager of Eco-Drip Irrigation Systems in Hastings, Nebraska, Gardine sells and installs drip irrigation systems, also called subsurface drip irrigation (SDI) or microirrigation systems, to delivery water directly at root level to growing plants. Because the irrigation takes place below the surface, almost nothing is lost to evaporation and efficient delivery to the root system means producers can use dramatically less water without affecting yield.
An ancient practice
Subsurface drip irrigation was practiced in ancient times by farmers who buried clay pots filled with water near the root zones of plants, allowing the water to gradually leak out into nearby vegetation.
Afghani farmers, interestingly, are credited with the first formal drip irrigation system, appearing in Afghanistan around 1866. Advances were made in the U.S. and Germany, where the first perforated pipe appeared in 1920, and in Israel, where the modern drip emitter design was developed to reduce clogging and improve efficiency in the late 1950s.
Water shortages in west Texas and a subsequent decline in the aquifer, stimulated Eco-Drip’s entry into drip irrigation technology. The Eco-Drip sub-surface system was designed in the 1980’s and first deployed on the family farm in Garden City, Texas. According to the company website, some 150,000 acres of farmland are now irrigated with Eco-Drip, one of many subsurface irrigation systems available to today’s farmers.
Although SDI systems are most often used for high-value vegetable crops, turf and landscapes, according to Gardine, drip irrigation technology has advanced so that large parcels of land can be irrigated below the surface.
“Our system offers practical solutions for large-scale farm operations of all types in the mid-plains,” Gardine said. “Alfalfa, corn, soybeans, wheat, and sugar beets are all common crops that benefit from the Eco-System technology.”
Not that easy
The SDI system is more complex than just holes in a pipe. First a dripper line of 5/8”, 7/8”, or 1” polyethylene tubes studded with high-tech drip emitters is permanently installed 12”-14” below the surface of the field, deep enough to avoid damage during tillage operations.
Because the system can’t be observed visually, it requires constant monitoring of flows and pressures to identify and deal with a blockage in the system. A typical system will include a pump; pressure relief and back flow prevention valves; a separator to take out coarse materials; a chemical injection unit; and a filtration unit equipped with back-flush control solenoid valves, all in addition to the PVC drip line delivery system.
Gardine pointed out that although the initial cost of a microirrigation system may be high, there are many factors that can help it pay back the cost. Not only do yields increase due to accurate, timely applications of water, nitrogen and other nutrients, farmers can use SDI systems to reclaim the corners of high-value fields that may be lost using center-pivot systems.
Gardine said it also allows producers to better manage the application of fertilizer and other nutrients as well as the timing and rate of irrigation. According to Gardine, the systems are comparable to the cost of pivot irrigation systems, but aren’t vulnerable to weather disasters in the same way.
On the downside, rodents are an issue with any SDI system. “Gophers often live in alfalfa fields, dry land fields and marginal land,” Gardine said. “They need to be removed and controlled prior to installation of the dripper line because they will burrow down to it and damage it.”
Plans for the future
Gardine says, “Our business is growing and farmers living in western Nebraska, northern Kansas and South Dakota are seeing advantages to the Eco-Drip Irrigation System for growing crops on their water-short acres.”
He said the Hastings office collects data from remote sensors in each of their customer’s fields and is building a database of information so customers can easily locate the data specific to their own fields and crops and retrieve it with a password.
Gardine said the company is seeking to hire technicians to meet anticipated rising demand.
“We hire graduates of the University of Nebraska College of Agronomy, although I find that attitude, motivation, and work ethic are more important than college background,” he said. “Ag experience helps. A willing- to-learn attitude is most important.”