Corn Irrigation Cage Match Births True Believer

Tommy Young placed two near-identical corn fields in an irrigation cage-match and walked away a true believer in automated management. ( Chris Bennett )

Tommy Young once could have kept a goldfish wet in the furrows of his corn. However, Young has seen and believed in the power of precision irrigation. In an era of razor-thin margins, words and theory mean little to the seasoned Arkansas grower, but with evidence on display in his own fields, Young is a quick convert to automated irrigation management.

In 2016, Young placed two near-identical corn fields in an irrigation scheduling cage-match: checkbook versus moisture sensors. On adjacent acreage, two center pivots turned to the tune of separate irrigation methods, and following harvest, Young walked away with matching yields and money in his pocket. Spurred by the on-farm display, Young is a true believer: Water is an immediate avenue for major savings and the proof is in his pivots.

Prior to the 2016 crop season, Chris Henry, water management engineer at the University of Arkansas Rice Research and Extension Center (RREC) in Stuttgart, walked onto Young’s operation and levied a challenge: Would Young be game to test irrigation scheduling techniques in side-by-side fields with mirrored agronomic conditions?

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Young was a follower of irrigation’s checkbook method, and typically applied roughly 2” of water per week starting on Monday (two full circles, each dropping nine-tenths of an inch). Regardless of clouds or atmospheric conditions, he shut down the pivots on Friday or Saturday morning, manually checking rain gauges and making adjustments: “Forget plant uptake. I assumed the plants needed moisture and I threw on water. A whole lot of water.”

Alongside nephews, Blake and Jim, Young farms 7,500 acres outside of Tuckerman in Jackson County, and owns Young’s Irrigation & Equipment. For a grower running 21 pivots across a 27-mile expanse, irrigation was a labor scramble and far from an efficient symphony. Despite lingering doubts, Young accepted Henry’s challenge, and pitted two adjoining fields (each 160 acres in size with the same corn variety) in a head-to-head irrigation battle, watered by identical center pivots and wells running at the same pump rate and nozzle package

Losing a Revolution

“Basically, Chris Henry used moisture sensors with one pivot and I went old school with the other pivot. I would crank up and Chris would hold off, still looking at moisture data. It seemed like I was starting mine on Monday and he started on Thursday. It didn’t take very long and he’d lost a couple of revolutions,” Young recalls.

Henry was relying on Watermark moisture sensors: “There’s a whole range of potential sensors, but at a minimum, you want to know you’re not over- or under-irrigating, and that you’re meeting crop water demand. You can save an entire turn in one week with sensors. Saving turns is saving money.”

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If the average time to make a pivot turn is approximately 40 hours at 4 gallons ($2.50 per gallon) of diesel per hour, the savings tallies a minimum of $400. However, the savings quickly compound when multiple turns are eliminated.

“You can buy four sensors for $150 and a manual reader for $250. Figure just one turn or $400 in savings across all your pivots. The math is so simple, it’s like an investment that keeps on giving” Henry describes. “Then factor in multiple turns, wear and tear, pickup mileage, labor, NRCS assistance, water, conservation and yield improvements. The savings can really add up.”

Time spent up front to learn about moisture sensors and other irrigation technologies reaps major dividends, although some growers initially conflate sensors with additional work, Henry says: “In reality, think about all the money a farmer spends on fertilizer, seed, treatments and fungicides. Then we just toss water out without any idea if it is enough or too much. Sensors are very eye-opening, yet everyone thinks they know what they are doing until they put a set of sensors in the ground. It’s often very humbling.”

Twin Yields

When Young finished the season, he was stunned to find the same bushel yield in both 160-acre fields, yet the checkbook field had demanded 130 hours of irrigation time over the moisture sensor field. “The lightbulb went on in my head,” Young explains. “If I multiplied this across all 21 of my pivots, it would be big money. The difference is undeniable and it’s led me to take automated irrigation technology across my entire operation.”

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Cutting fertilizer or seed rate is a dicey proposition for many growers, but cutting water is a viable option, according to Young. In his 30th year as a T&L center pivot irrigation dealer, Young has placed moisture sensors across all of his farming ground. “Done right, you can offset the costs of sensors, telemetry, or even weather stations in a single year. That’s the amount of savings that are left on the table by so many growers,” he says.

Soil moisture success was a major catalyst for increased irrigation automation across Young’s operation, driven entirely by a desire to curb costs. Young spent $2,500 per unit to place AgSense Field Commanders on each of his 21 pivots, supplemented by eight Davis weather stations. The technological upgrade has been transformative, according to Young. With pivots monitored by smartphone, Young has eliminated several thousand miles of pickup travel each season and gained an eye-in-the-sky view of his irrigation system.

Time is precious, particularly with center pivots. When a rice well goes down, Young can make a repair and catch up with hard pumping. However, when a pivot goes down or crashes in a corn or soybean field, a lost revolution can make a waste of all previous irrigations. Additionally, if a pivot fails and isn’t spotted for hours, the massive dumping of water in one location can be devastating. A pivot bogged in mud is extremely difficult to extract and can cause further loss of time and money.

“The Commanders quickly pay for themselves just by the mileage saved on our trucks. On my phone, I know exactly which center pivot needs to be dealt with and what the problem is. The money comes back so fast because it’s goodbye to downtime and field trips,” Young says.

The Right Bandwagon

Regardless of technology choices, Young is adamant that growers perform due diligence. Whether pivots, weather stations, moisture sensors, grain bins or fuel tanks, Young says everything must fit on one platform. “Be unified across your acreage and investigate the companies. Make sure what you choose handles everything you want to accomplish. For me, my biggest tech concerns are monitoring my center pivots, watching the weather, and checking my soil moisture levels.”

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“I’ve been shown and I now believe,” Young continues. “Moisture sensors are the bandwagon to jump on because they actually work by making me more efficient and saving me money.”

“This is something to spend a little money and get back quick returns or even a better crop with something that genuinely works. I’m never going back to irrigating without the efficiency of sensor technology,” Young adds. “It would be like somebody forcing me to drive the speed limit with no speedometer.”