Water efficiency solutions in Weld County may sit just below the surface
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To learn more about subsurface drip irrigation, view Colorado State University fact sheet 4.716 at http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/crops/04716.pdf.
In the absence of the center pivots that typically sprinkle rural Weld County, Colo., with irrigation water, sprouts of young, green onion leaves hint that something else is going on behind the scenes at Eaton’s Fagerberg Produce.
At one 360-acre site managed by the company, the trick lies just below the soil surface, where 7 1/2 miles of pipeline connect each row and each plant directly to water, fertilizer and other inputs.
When Lynn Fagerberg first switched to subsurface drip irrigation in the 1990s, the learning curve was steep. By largely abandoning flood and pivot irrigation, Fagerberg had to learn to manage his operation in an entirely new way.
“It felt like starting all over again in farming,” he said.
Since learning the ropes, however, Fagerberg said the benefits of drip irrigation have allowed the operation to farm more and farm better.
With water running below the surface, Fagerberg avoids not only evaporation, but also avoids runoff, which can mean water, fertilizer and chemicals ending up in unintended places. As a result, Fagerberg has observed a 60 percent improvement in water efficiency over flood irrigation, and he also has been able to maintain acreage in times of drought.
With heavy rainfall this spring, drier times like 2012 may feel far from mind, but the possibility of water scarcity remains a constant threat in Colorado’s semi-arid climate.
“(Drip irrigation) is going to become not only a possibility, but necessary,” Fagerberg said.
As farmers continue to compete with growing cities for water resources, Fagerberg said farmers will have no choice but to make do with less.
In Fagerberg’s case, less has actually meant more. With irrigation water going directly to plant roots, the farmer has cut down on disease and weeds, as well as chemical applications.
He has also observed a 20 to 25 percent increase in crop yields.
Despite the benefits, for farmers who have depended on pivot or flood irrigation their entire lives, resistance remains to taking a risk on a new system. Fagerberg estimated just 2 percent of Weld County acreage utilizes subsurface drip irrigation.
Kansas State University research irrigation engineer Freddie Lamm said one barrier to adopting subsurface drip irrigation is the cost.
Historically, installation costs for drip irrigation have been largely prohibitive, he said, adding the price barrier appears to be coming down. In some states, like Texas, he said cost sharing has allowed farmers to reduce risk and implement the system across more acreage. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Texas had more than 170,000 acres with subsurface drip irrigation as of 2013.
In California — where, Fagerberg said, “People that don’t have drip aren’t farming” — 370,000 acres were under subsurface drip irrigation.
For Fagerberg, the system paid off within four years, but he said many environmental and economic factors beyond a farmer’s control can delay the pay-off.
Lamm said another limiting factor has been rodents. When returning to fields in the springtime, farmers may discover small critters turned their drip lines into a winter snack.
“The industry is working on a solution for that last one, possibly something that would repel rodents like a gas or liquid,” Lamm said.
Bob Larson, a Fort Collins-based salesman for Larson Irrigation Inc., said tradition also stands as a major limiting factor. He has found many farmers prefer sticking to what they already know.
“Farmers are the first ones to know change is needed but the last ones to accept it,” Larson said.
At trade shows, however, he said there are more and more farmers asking the right questions about drip irrigation.
While many operations like Fagerberg’s have implemented an Israeli drip irrigation system produced by Netafim, he said American companies like Toro have developed effective, worthwhile alternatives as well.
For growers planting high-cost alfalfa seed, Larson has seen a payoff.
“You have less chance of disease, less chance of weed transfer, so they are seeing they are having better quality hay and the stand is lasting up to 30 percent longer,” Larson said.
For those interested in adopting subsurface drip irrigation, Fagerberg said his operation can provide farmers and researchers all they need to know about how the system functions in northern Colorado’s climate.
As the state searches to answer difficult water planning questions, Fagerberg said an investment in drip irrigation could be worthwhile.
While Fagerberg, like many farmers, does not want to see municipalities managing agricultural water, he said cities could benefit by engaging farmers in the conversation.
By partnering with and educating farmers on efficient irrigation practices, Fagerberg said city planners can help create a better future for agriculture.
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