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Crop Irrigation - An Overview


Commercial growers in areas where rainfall is inadequate or unpredictable often rely on irrigation to meet crop demand. Irrigation systems can be costly, but they can give you a good return on your investment and ultimately boost your bottom line when used effectively.

While the benefits depend on your soils and the type of crops you grow, irrigation has many advantages, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

  • The predictability of water availability enables a farmer to better stabilize income fluctuation.
  • Irrigation can improve crop quality, particularly vegetable crops.
  • Supplemental water can bump up crop yields, especially in soils that don’t retain moisture well.
  • Irrigation can increase the opportunity for double cropping, such as growing soybeans after wheat in a single season.
  • The irrigation system can serve as a convenient and effective delivery method for liquid fertilizers or crop protection products, a method also known as chemigation.

If irrigation looks like the right choice for you, take some time to research the different systems available and determine what might work best for your situation. Irrigation systems vary widely in the labor needed to operate them, their installation and maintenance costs, and their suitability for different crops. Systems are broadly categorized as either permanent, stationary systems or mobile systems; generally, permanent systems are usually more expensive to install but require less labor.

Here's a look at some of the most common systems and their applications.

  • Surface irrigation systems cause water to flow over the surface of the soil, flooding the entire surface area of a field or portions of it. Such systems are particularly effective for sown, drilled and seeded crops. Growers can also channel irrigation water between rows of plants.
  • Sprinkler irrigation systems spray water through pressurized nozzles. These systems include permanent, fixed sprinkler heads installed in fields or portable systems such as cable tow, center pivot or linear move. Installing variable-flow sprinkler heads will improve the precision of water delivery, as well as any fertilizer or crop protection products applied through the system.
  • Sub-irrigation systems artificially raise the level of the water table by blocking ditches or delivering water though buried perforated pipelines. Growers often use sub-irrigation for certain crop applications in areas with high water tables or in greenhouses.
  • Drip irrigation, also known as trickle irrigation, places water near plants' roots through buried or surface-level drip lines. Drip irrigation is useful in crop situations that require a high degree of precision or where water supplies are limited, as they reduce water loss through evaporation.

Managing your irrigation use properly will help you get the most from whatever system you choose. Test your soil to establish how much water it can absorb. Check the field soil moisture on a regular basis and keep careful records of irrigation applications, or even consider installing a daily water soil accounting system. Aim to use only the water that your crop needs, and apply irrigation water evenly.

Monitoring your water use is also important to protect your land. Applying excessive water can lead to soil erosion due to runoff and the loss of minerals and nutrients in the irrigation return flow, which drains away from the irrigated land. Too much water applied in one place can be detrimental to your crops, and over-application may even deplete the water source, lowering the water table level or leading to a reduction in the water levels of creeks or reservoirs.

Remember to use caution when applying fertilizers or crop protection products through any irrigation system. Read and follow all product label instructions, make sure your irrigation system is functioning properly, and take care to prevent fertilizers and chemicals from traveling to places where they are not intended to go.

Do you have any irrigation tips that you can share with other growers? We would love to hear your stories in our comments section below.

 

Useful Links

USDA (www.ams.usda.gov)

Maryland (www.mda.state.md.us)

West Virginia (www.wvagriculture.org)

Kentucky (www.kyagr.com)

Virginia (www.vdacs.virginia.gov)

North Carolina (www.ncagr.gov)

South Carolina (www.state.sc.us/scda)

Alabama (www.agi.state.al.us)

Georgia (http://agr.georgia.gov)

Florida (www.doacs.state.fl.us)


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