When Triple Oaks Farms put in a 14-acre pond this past spring, it wasn’t because the owners liked to fish. Instead, the goal was to establish a storage reservoir designed to feed up to three new center pivot irrigation systems.
“In this case, these pivots aren’t near any creek or river, and the nearest well is only capable of producing around 500 gallons per minute,” explains Joe Neal Balance of Triple Oaks Farms, which is a partnership between his son, Neal, and a brother and a nephew near Bowling Green, Kentucky. “We have some wells that produce 500 gallons and some that produce up to 800 gallons per minute or more. However, they all go down into solid rock that is 20 to 40 feet below the soil surface, even as little as 10 feet in some areas.”
Wells are slow to recharge
The other issue is that most of those wells don’t tap into aquifers like they do in the Midwest. Rather, the wells access underground streams, as evidenced by a large crawfish that came out of one well when it was being drilled in this area of the country. After they have been pumping for a while, such wells often have to replenish for several hours before they can again reach capacity.
Hence, the solution for Balance and a few other Kentucky farmers has been to establish or to enlarge a pond or lake to serve as a reservoir for low-producing wells and rainfall runoff. This investment allows them to apply more water than the established well can sustain at a time when a crop is demanding extra moisture.
“We had good commodity prices in 2012. However, we also suffered from a severe drought in our area that year,” Balance points out. “So we chose to take some of the crop insurance payment we received and invest in irrigation. Land leases are really high around here, so we decided that instead of trying to rent more land, we would try to make the land we have more productive.”
Ironically, that decision coincided with the discovery of a good water supply at one location while drilling a well in search of natural gas.
Consequently, Triple Oaks Farms has already installed seven center pivot units with plans to install more as it develops the water resources.
Like Triple Oaks Farms, Bob Wade, who farms near Glendale, Kentucky, installed four center pivots just ahead of the 2012 drought.
As a result, Wade saw corn yield differences of 200 bushels between dryland and irrigated fields that year. That certainly provided a huge incentive to expand irrigation in the future.
Continuous water supply
While Wade is fortunate to pull water directly from nearby rivers that feed five of his center pivots, he has also constructed a pond to serve as a continuous water supply for three additional pivots.
“It’s a 6-acre pond designed to hold almost 46 million gallons and to supply needed water for around 800 acres,” Wade explains. “In the meantime, the pond will get its water from a well that pumps about 500 gallons per minute and a wet-weather creek that feeds into it.”
Wade notes that his plan was “to build the pond for a steady water supply that could exceed the well capacity when necessary.”
Balance notes that he already saw that corn yields had increased up to 120 bushels or better due to irrigation compared with dryland fields in 2014. That, he adds, was with limited water resources.
“I think a lot of farmers have the attitude that irrigation is something they only consider when corn is high priced,” Balance says. “In my opinion, a guarantee on the revenue stream is more important when corn is $3.50 or $4 than when it’s $6 or $7. So our plan is to put in more systems as resources allow.”