Can drip irrigation keep the Prairie Profitable?

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Courtesy of Netafim USA

The use of flood and center pivot irrigation of crops via the waters of the Ogallala Aquifer is as hot a discussion topic as the current drought.
To many who mine the aquifer to make a living, trying to keep a profitable way of life sustainable in a time when the broader public is seeking more conservation of resources yet wanting inexpensive, plentiful and safe food is problematic.

Perhaps it's wise to keep in mind the words of 2012 World Food Prize Laureate Daniel Hillel. 'What undermines civilizations very often is mismanagement of land, water, crops and agriculture; the very basis of subsistence, the very basis of life,' Hillel said at his laureate lecture. 'Infrequent, periodic flood irrigation overthe centuries has proven notto be sustainable.'

Perhaps his mosttelling words were these: 'We have been sinful in our use of the soil and of life. We can either play a negative role or a positive one in the use of our resources depending on how we manage them.' Hillel became considered the father of drip irrigation, bringing life to the Negev Desert.

'The theory of infrequent irrigation - that is, come back every two or three weeks when moisture is depleted - was at one time the standard theory,' Hillel said. 'Equal availability of wilting point and field capacity.'

Though born and educated in the U.S., Hillel brought his agricultural education to a kibbutz in the nascent state of Israel in the early 1950s. Hillel saw the people of Israel kibbutzim were mostly new to farming and would be willing to try new technologies.

'It occurred to them that maybe if we applied water a few drops at a time in a continuous frequency ratherthan flooding the land with high volume and low frequency using perforated PVC tubing - something new that had emerged out of the post-war era - and then fine-tune the amount of water as the plant matured, you could have success in response to rainfall and the needs of the plant/' Hillel said.

Through the pioneering efforts of Hillel, the benefits of drip irrigation - yield increases, crop quality improvement and better resource use efficiency - are being seen and more widely adapted, to the point where many universities have researchers examining the successful efficacy of drip irrigation in ever more complex field uses.

Subsurface Drip Irrigation is a specialized subset of drip irrigation where dripline or drip tape 'lateral lines' (tubes buried beneath the crop rows) and supply and flushing 'submains' (pipes supplying water to the lateral lines) are buried beneath the soil surface for multi-year use.

The SDI lateral line tubes are buried beneath the crop and deliver water and nutrients directly to the soil and plant roots to support crop growth. In addition to drip tape, thin wall integral driplines are commonly used as well.

The technique of burying less expensive bi-wall drip tape laterals beneath field crops was pioneered in fruit and vegetable fields in the Southwest U.S. decades ago. Fast forward a half-century to discover SDI has become the fastest growing irrigation technology in the world.

The SDI technique is now being used throughout the world on a wide range of grain, forage and fiber crops including alfalfa, corn, cotton, soybeans and sugarcane. In Kansas alone, about 30,000 according to Freddie Lamm, Ph.D., research agricultural engineer at the Kansas State University Northwest Research-Extension Center at Colby.

'Drip irrigation will definitely have a play in our deficit water situation, where water is very marginal,' Lamm said. 'We will likely be able to end up stabilizing yields at a higher level under drip irrigation than we are now using other alternative watering systems like flood and pivot. There's very little evaporation from the soil surface in drip irrigation compared with pivots and flood irrigation.'

'There's also no runoff. It leaves the soil drier so you can capture rainfall events when they occur. By applying smaller amounts of water, you also decrease the potential of the amount of depercolation below the root zone and you can better time the watering as needed especially late in the season.'

Still, for all the platitudes that can be handed toward drip irrigation, agriculture is still a business, and long-term investments such as a move to drip irrigation must be made with care.

'We are constantly narrowing the cost-benefit gap in drip irrigation as the overall costs have decreased overtime,' Lamm said. 'You have an opportunity to narrow the gap by irrigating a few more acres than you would with a center pivot. With the same amount of water, you can irrigate a few more acres.'

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