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Smart Irrigation Month

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Written by Kelly Downing |

July has been Smart Irrigation Month. I don’t know about you, but I completely missed all of the parades, fireworks displays, and benefit concerts in its honor. I didn’t even see the telethon. Like most of you, I was too busy trying to irrigate efficiently! 

No, this observation gets lost in everything else going on in our busy world. There is value in thinking about the concept, however. Often we get so wrapped up in keeping up with the day-to-day challenges of our operations that we get a little tunnel vision. It is easy to focus so intently on the critical, immediate issues in front of us that we temporarily forget about larger, more general topics. <

The current drought conditions faced by farmers in many areas of the U.S. provide a constant reminder that “smart irrigation” is not just a catchy phrase or a “cause of the day.” It is becoming increasingly obvious that this is, and will be, a critical concept for the future of agriculture. Not just in western states, where the climate is arid, and not just in “traditional” irrigation areas. 

Competition for water continues to increase. Not just competition between farmers; not just competition between states; not just competition between agriculture and industry; not just competition between agriculture and domestic or urban users (irrigating vs. drinking water). We increasingly see competition between agriculture and environmental interests, in the interest of protecting wildlife habitat, endangered or at-risk animal and plant populations. There is also increasing interest in how farm practices hundreds of miles away influence coastal and marine environments, like Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. 

This competition is not limited to volume of water used, either. Protecting and improving water quality is more important now than ever. Water quality will continue to be a hot topic in our cultural, political, regulatory and economic discussions. Let us not forget that quality is a broad term. It can include physical (temperature, particle transport) as well as chemical (nutrient content, pesticides in solution) components. 

All of these issues, especially combined with the constant pressure to increase food production and maintain profitability, make it imperative to find and implement the “smartest” irrigation practices possible. We need to work to increase both effectiveness and efficiency of irrigation. To me, “effectiveness” means that we apply every ounce of water the crop needs to achieve our goals, in the correct amounts and at the correct times. “Efficiency” means we apply not an ounce more than that, with the minimum possible energy, labor and cost. <

I mention all these things not to create alarm, but to spur thought and discussion. I think the great majority of producers are conscientious about all these issues, and good managers include them in their systems as a matter of course. I also think we would all be better served if we keep the discussions among stakeholders (ag, municipal, industrial, environmental) to a reasoned, rational tone, with everyone committed to working together. Sometimes we forget this part. 

Rice field
Jeremy Baltz's rice field

Of course you knew this would come up eventually, but here it is: one way we are trying to “increase our irrigation IQ” is with our Circles for Rice project. Last week, I had the chance to stop by Jeremy Baltz’s field in Arkansas. His pivot rice looks quite good so far, while he has applied just about half of the water used on a nearby flood field. It will be exciting to see how the rest of the season goes, as we continue to study this “smart irrigation” practice. 

You probably remember the old joke: “It’s hard to remember that your original goal was to drain the swamp when you are up to your {rear end} in alligators.” That is analogous to the situation we often find ourselves in: our goal is to increase efficiency, effectiveness, and profit, but our immediate concern is keeping the crop going and meeting the day-to-day pressures of farming. So, as you fight off the daily “alligators,” try to grab an occasional bucket of swamp water and throw it over your shoulder! 

I will be at the field days hosted by RiceTec, in Harrisonburg, and the University of Arkansas, in Stuttgart, next week. I hope to see you there. Stay safe! 

For more smart irrigation tips, visit irrigation.org

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