I think most people realize that planting and harvest seasons are busy times on the farm.  However, the growing season can be even busier for a farmer who irrigates his crops.

Most acres on our farm are watered via irrigation, either by pivot or pipe.  While we have ample supplies of water under some fields, others have very limited irrigation capacity or none at all.  Water use is restricted in some areas, but we are very stingy about irrigating our fields anyway.  Water conservation is important to us, plus there’s nothing to be gained by irrigating unnecessarily.

Center Pivot irrigation system.

A typical day during the dry part of a growing season will begin with checking any irrigation systems that may be operating.  This involves checking the well that pumps the water, the irrigation motor, as well as the irrigation system – either a pivot that rotates around a center tower or pipe that lays on the ground.  For the well, we’ll check the drip oil and the water pressure.  Then we’ll check the gauges on the engine which are similar to what you might see on the dashboard of a pickup, such as engine temperature and RPMs. A Chevy 454 engine that’s used in a truck is the same engine that can be used in an irrigation system. Some of these engines are powered by diesel fuel and others by natural gas or electricity. Some irrigators also use propane.

Gauges on an irrigation monitor.

With the pivots, the rotation speed and position of the system is noted, besides ensuring that there are no leaks, flat tires, or other problems.  We’ll check any fields irrigated with pipe to see if the water has traveled through to the end of the rows, and just to monitor that everything is working properly.  Pipe irrigation is less efficient and far more labor intensive than pivot irrigation, so our acres irrigated by pipe are very small sections of fields that cannot be reached by a pivot.  We also improve water efficiency is by extending the pivot’s sprinklers downward.  Instead of water shooting out of the top of the pipe, it is dropped to sprinklers that hang below the pivot spans.  This system is especially preferential on a windy day.

Extended sprinklers or “Drops”.

Some of our irrigation systems can be remotely monitored over the internet which saves time and fuel.  If a system shuts down, we receive emails and text messages.  We are then able to manage repairs and maintenance sooner rather than later.  We don’t monitor the pivots that are close to home, but rather use that technology on fields that are more than five miles from our house.

Why do some farmers haul ATVs in the summer?  The irrigated fields are often too muddy for travel by pickup truck, but a four-wheeler can access the pivot point in just about any condition.  I know most people look at those muddy ATVs and think that somebody’s having too much fun – but trust me – for Mr. Corn Farmer, this is just part of the job.

During widespread dry spells, it can take an entire day to make the rounds to check all of the engines and pivots and fix whatever problems may be encountered.  By an entire day, I don’t mean that the day is over at 5:00. It often means that supper is served somewhere around 7:00, and then there’s a few more wells to check before bedtime at 10:00.

Irrigation is rather labor intensive, and as with anything mechanical, prone to breakdowns.  Sometimes pivots get stuck in the mud and must be pulled out by a tractor, sometimes there are leaks, sometimes the pivots move out of alignment and shut down, and sometimes there are electrical or hydraulic problems.   By the end of summer in dry years, Mr. Corn Farmer will start referring to this task as “irritation” instead of “irrigation!”

In south central Nebraska, the weather is very unpredictable, but being able to irrigate helps us prevent drought damage to crops between rains, especially on a day like today with unseasonable highs of 107 forecasted.  An even application of moisture from rain and responsible irrigation gives us more yield potential to meet the ever increasing demand for grain.

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