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Published September 04, 2012, 09:45 AM

Irrigation: Back on tap?

Robert Vivatson smiles at the memory of his initial foray into irrigation in the mid 1990s.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

CAVALIER, N.D. — Robert Vivatson smiles at the memory of his initial foray into irrigation in the mid 1990s.

“We had a traveling gun (wheeled cart with attached sprinkler) and 40 acres of irrigated potatoes. It was trial-and-error,” says Vivatson, a veteran Cavalier, N.D., farmer.

Since then, through years wet and dry, Vivatson — current president of the North Dakota Irrigation Association — has expanded the use of irrigation in his farming partnerships.

Today, his operation in northeast North Dakota irrigates roughly 1,300 acres of wheat, soybeans and potatoes with increasingly sophisticated center-pivot systems.

“We’ve taken some marginal land, put water on it and gotten good returns,” he says.

This year, for instance, some of the irrigated land likely will yield 40 bushels or better of soybeans. “Without irrigation, we might have gotten 10 bushels,” Vivatson says.

“The economic impact of irrigation is huge,” he says. “Typically, the revenue generated (on irrigated land) is three or four times greater than what a dryland crop would be.”

Irrigation in the region has been on the backburner during the region’s long wet cycle. The region has been so wet some years that many irrigation systems weren’t even turned on.

But the drought of 2012 almost certainly will generate renewed interest in irrigation across the Upper Midwest, particularly if the fall is dry, officials say.

Producers likely will start to show more interest after harvest is finished, says Milt Lindvig, a representative of the North Dakota Irrigation Association.

Not all farmers who want to start irrigating will be able to, irrigation officials say.Would-be irrigators must apply to regulators and evaluating the applications can take months or even years.

Sometimes the applications are rejected because the soil type or water quality or both aren’t suitable for irrigation. And sometimes regulators delay making a decision until they have a better long-term understanding of how much water can be withdrawn safely from the proposed source, officials say.

“We had quite a time getting (our) water permits. It’s tough,” Vivatson says. “But I have to say, once we explained our case, the State Water Commission (which issues permits) was very supportive.”

Look for possibilities

There are untapped irrigation possibilities that farmers should try to identify and utilize, Lindvig says.

For instance, some of the water used for irrigation in Vivatson’s farming operation comes from a small, previously unknown aquifer.

The farming operation also irrigates with water captured in flood-control dams and pumped into holding ponds.

“Nobody wants this water in the spring,” he says. “Rather than send it up to Hudson Bay (via the Red River of the North), let’s find a way to store it and use it.”

His farming operation uses 13 or 14 center pivots, five or six of which “run totally off of spring runoff water. The rest are partially run that way,” he says.

Vivatson, who has held leadership positions with Moorhead, Minn.-based American Crystal Sugar, grows sugar beets but doesn’t irrigate them.

“We haven’t put any sugar beets under water. It seems to work better without doing it.”

Irrigation generally is best for long-seaso” crops, those harvested in September or later. Such crops need considerable moisture in late July and August, when rainfall often is scarce.

Irrigation also generally works with high-value crops such as potatoes. Vivatson says he began irrigating initially because Simplot, which operates a potato processing plant in Grand Forks, N.D., announced it wouldn’t take any more dryland potatoes.

While the returns on irrigated land are high, “the expenses are much higher, too. Being very conservative, I think you have $3,000 (in expenses) on an acre of irrigated potatoes,” Vivatson says.

Vivatson, like other irrigation supporters, say the practice benefits local communities and agribusiness in general.

“There’s a lot of dollars go to the fertilizer guy, the irrigator guy, the people doing the work,” he says.

Generally, installing irrigation equipment costs roughly $1,000 per acre, says Tom Scherer, North Dakota State University Extension Service irrigation engineer.

In the past, the rule of thumb was that farmers need at least $100 per acre of additional revenue to cover the cost of irrigation. The number is probably higher today, he says.

Whatever the breakeven point, farmers are reaching it more easily because of current high crop prices, Scherer says.

Sources of water

Ag producers in the Upper Midwest rely on surface water and underground water, known as groundwater, for irrigation. Groundwater comes from aquifers, underground layers of rock or soil. They are not, contrary to popular imagination, vast underground rivers, officials say.

Aquifers in the Upper Midwest are typically relatively small.

Part of south-central South Dakota, however, sits on top of the massive Ogalla Aquifer, which lies below eight states on the Great Plains.

Most of Nebraska is atop the Ogallala, which helps explain why Nebraska leads the nation with 8.5 million irrigated farm acres, according to a 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

Roughly three in eight cropland acres in the state are irrigated and Nebraska accounts for about 15 percent of the nation’s 55 million irrigated cropland acres, according to information from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Surface irrigation takes surface water and uses gravity to spread it out across farmland.

Center-pivot irrigation — which takes either surface water or groundwater and sprinkles it over crops — is most common in the Upper Midwest.

Center-pivot technology continues to become more efficient, using less water and energy to achieve the same results, Lindvig says.

Around the region

In North Dakota, about 272,000 acres are irrigated, according to the state Irrigation Association. That’s less than 1 percent of the state’s 39.6 million acres in farms.

Currently, groundwater and surface water each account for about half of the water allocated for farm irrigation in the state, although all the allocated water isn’t always used, according to the state Water Commission.

It’s tougher to get a firm handle on the number of irrigated farmland acres in Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana, in part because producers there don’t always irrigate all the acres for which they have authorization, officials in the three states say.

But officials also say a 2007 USDA report, the most recent information available, provides a fairly accurate picture of how many acres are being irrigated.

Here’s how the report pegs farm irrigation acreage in the three states:

•Minnesota: 506, 357 irrigated acres or about 1.8 percent of the state’s 26.9 million acres in farms.

Groundwater accounts for 98 percent of farm irrigation use, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

•South Dakota: 373,842 irrigated acres, or less than 1 percent of the state’s 43.7 million acres in farms.

Groundwater accounts for 63 percent of farm irrigation and surface water accounts for 37 percent in the state. Eastern South Dakota relies primarily on groundwater. Producers west of the Missouri River, which runs north to south through the middle of the state, generally rely on surface water, says Eric Gronlund with the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resource’s Water Rights Program.

•Montana: 2 million irrigated acres, or roughly 3.5 percent of the state’s 60.5 million acres in farms.

Surface water accounts for most of the irrigation in Montana, although coming up with a firm percentage is difficult because of how the data is reported, according to the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Science and legwork

Historically, there have been widespread concerns that farm irrigation harms nearby supplies of drinking water.

Nitrogen, commonly applied to crops to add nutrients, is the big worry. Too much nitrogen, in the form of nitrate, in drinking water can hurt infants and young livestock, according to information from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Agriculturalists in years past made mistakes with nitrogen application. But farmers and others learned from those mistakes, Vivatson says.

“There’s a tremendous amount of science behind this (modern irrigation practices),” Vivatson says. “If we use science in this whole thing, we probably will not err. But if we go with emotion or don’t use science, I’ll think we’ll have some troubles.”

Irrigation requires a big commitment, Vivatson says.

Would-be irrigators need to determine if their soil is suitable for irrigation and explore potential sources of water. They also need to learn whether other farmers have prior claims to that water, Vivatson says.

“Then, after you’ve done the legwork, you have to look into the economics — the kind of crops you might want to grow,” he says.

Strong commodity prices strengthen the case for irrigation, he says.

“These good prices won’t hold forever,” Vivatson says. “We know that. But if you’re very committed to it and you can get a couple of good crops and get you fixed costs down, then it can really make sense.”