Pioneers in the Field: Subsurface Drip Irrigation

Background

Wendell Nicholas operates a farm in Stanton County. Prior to installing SDI, the Nicholas farm was flood irrigated. Concern regarding the decline of the Ogallala aquifer in his area and stricter enforcement of water allocations prompted Nicholas and his father to look into more efficient irrigation options.

My dad was in his 80’s when he started putting that [subsurface drip irrigation] in, and probably his motivation was that he just didn’t think much of sprinklers…because you gave up the geometry…the sprinkler only watered 75% of the square.

Eldon Schmidt and his son, Dale, recognized the need to adopt an improved irrigation system when they saw the decline in water availability first hand:

We’ve got one scenario here where the irrigation well has dropped off to 100 gallons per minute. You can’t even think of making a sprinkler work on that.

Much of the farm land in their area had been converted to flood or center pivot irrigation, but the Schmidts recognized the inefficiencies of these surface irrigation systems. In the early 1990’s they installed an SDI system on their farm near Copeland, Kansas.


Water

The impetus behind using subsurface drip irrigation technology is to irrigate more efficiently, saving water and money associated with running a sprinkler system. An SDI system operates under low pressure, allowing water to seep into the ground at root level. This prevents water loss through evaporation and has the potential control weeds. Modern SDI systems can be tailored to accommodate specific crop or farmland needs with the goal of making sure the water is delivered directly to the crop. This level of efficiency is what motivated both producers to invest in a drip system:

We put the drip in as a result of trying to conserve water. The state was becoming very deliberate about making sure we stayed within our water allotment…the drip irrigation allowed us to stay within those means. We use about 3.4 gallons/minute an acre with drip. A lot of sprinklers are more like 4.5 gallons/minute an acre. – Nicholas

Efficiency on tape is about 100%...on sprinklers is about 85%. Most of the loss in efficiency is in the evaporation and the ability to work sooner. You can put an inch of water on with drip and a day or two later we can drive on it with a tractor. – Schmidt

Nicholas describes how having a more efficient watering system allowed them to simplify their production. Prior to installing SDI, Nicholas would plant and water a limited amount of corn during the summer and supplement production with a winter wheat crop. More efficient water allocation allowed Nicholas to expand upon his corn production in the summer months and do away with winter wheat production:

It used to be that you watered corn, and then you didn’t have enough water to water all corn, so what acres were left over you planted wheat in it and you watered the wheat. So, you ran the wells summer and winter time because you had a summer crop and you had a winter crop. The drip that we put in allowed us to use just summer water.

Nicholas explains that, by using the same amount of water more efficiently during the summer, he was able to avoid using the wells during the winter.

Because you could water a corn crop on fewer gallons of water/minute per acre, you watered more acres of corn. Those added acres are the same acres that you would have run the wells to raise wheat on. We’re using less water because instead of watering 200 days out of the year we’re only watering 115 days a year.

Schmidt’s grandson explains how having this more efficient systems has not only saved them water, but has allowed him to monitor their water use over time and apply that information to future crop rotations and watering:

The efficiency on flood was just terrible. The drip puts out water in the same amount all the way down the field. In the flood, you started water here and it took 10 hours to get it all the way down the field, and there was water here all that 10 hours.

This made it difficult to track where the water was actually being used. Now, the Schmidt farm can track their annual water use to each zone. This knowledge allows them to monitor their wells and rotate between corn and milo as needed.

Energy

When asked about the pros and cons of having SDI, Eldon Schmidt, along with his son and grandson, simply state, "You don’t have an electric bill like you do to run your sprinkler… that’s one thing you don’t have.”

We have seen the correlation between water and energy with all of our award winners, and this practice is no different:

We [farmers] do things because we’re economic minded. Ultimately, the drip saves us water because we water fewer days…the drip is a lot more efficient…on a water and energy per acre basis. – Nicholas

Progress

What is so impressive about both of these producers is their ability to speak about this system pragmatically. Both Nicholas and Schmidt speak candidly about the successes and the failures they have had. For agricultural production to continue to progress towards higher standards of water and energy efficiency, these are the kinds of conversations that need to continue.

Both the Nicholas and Schmidt farms have had SDI in the ground for nearly twenty years now, and both systems are still going strong. Maintenance seems to be on par with the maintenance and upkeep for center pivot sprinklers. According to Eldon Schmidt:

We spend the same amount of time on the sprinklers as we do on the tape as far as maintenance. We’ve had tape in the ground since ’94 and sprinklers since ’96, and both are still operating very well. There is one issue: sprinklers blow away and tape don’t. You don’t have to carry insurance on your tape like you do your sprinkler.

The type of maintenance issues the Schmidt’s face with their SDI include rodent damage and leaks, stating, "In 300 acres, we found 30-40 leaks this year and that’s not abnormal…it’s just part of the maintenance.” Most of the leaks seem to be simple fixes that the Schmidt’s can fix themselves.

Both producers admit, however that installing new SDI can be daunting. The Schmidt family has heard that new dip systems can cost $1700 per acre, installed. The EPA provides an SDI cost calculator that suggests that figure is accurate. The Schmidt family installed their own system for significantly less, but recommends professional installation for maximum efficiency. The biggest piece of advice they offer is that with that kind of investment, a producer must be aware of their future water prospects.

Would you invest that kind of money if you have only five or ten years more water? That is the question.

Nicholas warns that one drawback to the SDI system is that it does not offer an option for surface watering. Chemicals used to control pests and weeds often have to be watered in. Those chemicals cannot be run through the drip tape, so chemical application has to be timed so that it corresponds with a rain. Lack of surface watering can also affect seed germination.

We need to plant corn a week from now and the surface of our drip field is so dry we’re losing sleep. We’re worried about our corn seed…will it sprout?

The experience Wendell Nicholas and Eldon Schmidt have with subsurface drip irrigation, and their willingness to addressing the positive and negative issues with frankness is what will allow farmers to successfully adopt this tool in the future. For this reason, Nicholas and Schmidt truly are pioneers in the field of this emerging technology.

Now that the drip has been in the ground for 19 years, I don’t worry as much because we have production history to prove that this is what we’ve done for so many years…the drip is awesome and I think we’ve learned how to manage it and maintain it. – Nicholas

RESOURCES
SDI for Corn Production - A Brief Review of 25 Years of KSU Research
SDI, the basics of successful systems
USDA Rural Energy for America Program
2007 Census of Agriculture
Evaluating Energy Use for Pumping Irrigation Water
Advantages and Disadvantages of Sub Surface Drip Irrigation
SDI, the Basics of Successful Systems
Drip Irrigation Saves Water: Kansas grower installs huge subsurface system
Advantages and Disadvantages of Sub Surface Drip Irrigation
Real Ag: Irrigation
Kansas Irrigation Trends by Danny Rogers
RELATED VOICES
Wendell Nicholas & Eldon Schmidt, leading the way in SDI