Mark Eitel: Wise use of Water, Soil, & Wind

Southwest Kansas has experienced severe drought and declining groundwater supplies yet Mark Eitel has maintained profitability with 35% less water. Converting acreage to highly efficient, low-pressure Subsurface Drip Irrigation systems has saved water, reduced chemical costs, and energy expenses on Eitel’s farm outside of Dighton. No-till farming practices have increased the health of the soil on his 1700 acres and improved water retention and holding capacity, reduced runoff and also saved fuel costs.

Eitel’s practices focus on efficient water use, soil health, and profitability. Mark explains,

I am trying to save the water that is underneath me. If I pump less, the water will be there a lot longer. The whole idea is to keep my water as long as I possibly can. The water level going up is a good indication that what I am doing is working.

Eitel raises irrigated corn and soybeans on about 1100 acres and uses a three-year rotation of corn, fallow, and wheat on about 600 acres of dryland. Eitel’s practices focus on efficient water use, soil health, and profitability.

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Water

Efficient Irrigation. Using Subsurface Drip Irrigation with no-till farming practices, Mark and Mary Eitel have created a unique system that prioritizes water efficiency and soil health. In 1996, Eitel and his father, Glenn, first installed 210 acres of SDI. In the following years, Eitel has incrementally increased the acreage irrigated with SDI to a total of 770 acres in 2014. He intends to continue converting to SDI because the efficiency is so great. He explains,

With SDI, there is a 99.7% efficiency, you lose .3 of 1% to evaporation as compared to flood irrigation which is between 67-72% efficient, or compared to a very efficient sprinkler (87-88% efficient). With flood irrigation on open ground, when it is fairly hot, you lose half of the water easily. Drip is just the best as far as limiting evaporation loss.

Further reducing his water usage, Eitel has discontinued the practice of pre- and post-watering fields.

Eitel is about the only person in the county doing SDI. Most other producers in the area do about 50/50 flood/Center Pivot Irrigation.

Mark Eitel - Transitioning from Furrow to Subsurface Drip Irrigation from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.


Keeping the soil covered. "The one weak link with SDI is that it is hard to get enough water on to germinate,” Eitel says. To address germination issues, he combines no-till with chopping high-moisture corn stocks. When the corn is still very wet (28-30% moisture), it is harvested with a chopper that cuts the corn into a papier-mâché-like substance which is then spread evenly over the ground. Cutting at that much higher moisture, the residue stays on the ground, keeping the soil covered and keeping the water in the soil.

Originally, Eitel tried mowing or baling and selling the stalks but then realized that taking the corn stalks off left the ground bare. Leaving the stalks standing is better but still does not provide much groundcover and it takes a while for them to break down.

It is best to leave it standing if you are cutting dry corn but I'm fortunate enough to have a feedlot within a few miles and they like to take wet corn, let it ferment and feed it to the cattle. Cutting at that much higher moisture, it lays on the ground and stays on. You only need about an inch of rain between March and May to get good germination. Last year, between January and May, we only got about 1/2 inch of rain but the soil held the moisture and it worked. That was the first year since 1995 that we didn't get an inch of rain.

 No-till systems impact water retention and holding capacity. Iowa State University research claims that water infiltration rates for soil tillage are just 2.60 inches/hour where no-till infiltration is significantly higher at 5.67 inches/hour. That’s over three inches more water infiltration per hour. In areas with limited rainfall, you need to keep as much as you can get. Eitel explains,

In western KS, you rarely get a gentle rain. Usually the rain comes really hard, really fast. The major savings with no-till is that you can catch 5 inches of rain and have no water in the ditch or standing in the field where others have water standing and erosion. No-till catches much more of the natural moisture. After three or four years of no-till, the hardpan breaks up which increases the water holding capacity. No-till also makes the earthworm population thrive, basically turning the ground into a big sponge 6-10 feet deep.

The increased population of earthworms has been well documented. An ARS 30-year tillage study shows an increase in earthworms after just a few years of no-till. Soil scientist, Bill Edwards says, "there is a mutually beneficial relationship between worms and no-till: The less tillage, the more worms; the more worms, the better no-till works.” Increased earthworm populations result in improved topsoil and reduced erosion.

Mark Eitel: Saving Water for the Future from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.


Energy

Irrigation energy efficiencies. While efficient irrigation systems save water, there are also many energy savings to be had. SDI systems use very little energy, especially when compared to center pivot irrigation. Drip systems have no moving parts and use only one small controller that uses around 100 watts. While 75% of Eitel’s irrigated acres are SDI, 250 are still on center pivot irrigation. Using EQIP funds, Eitel installed Variable Frequency Drives on most of his Center Pivots. Eitel explains how VFDs save energy:

If you turn on a submersible pump the motor runs at 100% (3600 RPMs). It pulls RPMs within 1/2 second meaning there is a tremendous boost right away, then it levels off. The utility actually charges a horsepower charge that goes off the highest number recorded on your meter. When you turn on the pump, it draws that big surge and you are charged for the surge. If you use a VFD, it starts at 1200 RPMS and slowly increases to 3600 over 1.5 minutes which saves some money. But the trick is, if you need a 40 HP motor to pump, get a 60 HP motor then turn VFD to where you are only running about 3100-3200 RPMs. That lessening of RPMs makes the motor much more efficient; it is about a 25% efficiency. Kind of like having a big motor in the car, you get the same speed with a 4 cylinder as an 8 but the 4 has to work much harder. With a VFD, you actually use less electricity to pump the same water.

Additionally, VFDs reduce wear and tear on your system. The slower acceleration of the pump both reduces wear on the equipment but also lessens the water pressure. Eitel says,

Imagine starting a car in 4th gear and going to 60 MPH from scratch. It is so much harder on the gears. If you go slower, it is more efficient with less wear and tear. Without a VFD, there can be a build-up of highwater pressure. If you start the water gradually, it builds pressure more slowly, allowing air to escape through the vents. Pressure can blow pipes. VFD takes power off the three phase line and tunes it up electronically to where you have three flows of the same, the result is that you are using energy with 10% more efficiency.

Reduced Fertilizer. The biggest energy savings, however, is the reduced fertilizer use with the SDI systems. If you apply fertilizer through drip tape there is absolutely no loss so you can use a lot less. As Eitel explains,

Most people use 1 lb. of Nitrogen for 1 bushel of corn; if you are trying to grow 200 bushel of corn, you use 200 lbs. of N. Through drip tape, because there is absolutely no loss, smaller amounts of fertilizer are needed over a longer period. You can spoon feed the nitrogen and use a lot less.

You’re putting it on where you want it, right in the root zone. You’re putting it on when you need it, not when you have to put it on. Plus, you can decide later if you need more. Those things allow you to use just the right amount instead of over fertilizing which is a big problem especially near rivers and streams.

For the same 200 bushels of corn, Eitel only needs 110 lb. of N, the equivalent of 90 pounds N less per acre. To produce 1 lb. of fertilizer commercially takes 33,000 BTUs. 33,000 BTU multiplied by 90 lbs./acre acre results in a savings of 2,970,000 BTU/acre. Since 1996, Eitel has reduced rates of fertilizer application from 160 to 140 to 110 lbs. of N last year. Even with the 90 lb. reduction in N as compared to his peers, Eitel still made 250 bushels an acre.

The flexibility of fertilizer application via SDI allows you to put fertilizer on when you need it no matter how tall the plant is and it goes right to the root resulting in much more efficient application. But that’s not the only savings, Mark explains, "using half the typical amount of fertilizer saves money, too. I’ve saved $63/acre - about $3,600/year just in fertilizer savings.”

Using a corn/soybean crop rotation further reduces fertilizer needs. Eitel doesn’t use fertilizer on soybeans, which saves on fertilizer costs, but soybeans also mellow the soil. Soybean roots are deep and bushy, which helps to break up the hardpan of soil, increasing the health of soil which saves money, too.

No-till saves money on fuel and labor costs. For example, working 160 acres (one quarter) would take about 12 hours to plow and a couple hundred gallons of diesel fuel. You only use about 15 gallons and do the entire job in two hours with no-till. For more examples of how no-till saves energy, see Gail Fuller, Darin Unruh, and Dale Strickler’s case studies from the 2013 Awards.

Wind Power. In addition to these energy efficiencies, Eitel is looking into renewable energy as a means of powering his farm. A 10 KW wind turbine produces all the electricity for the house and shop. The turbine produces 10 KW in a 20 mph wind, roughly $350 worth of electricity per month. Used in conjunction with a net metering agreement he has with his local electric co-op, the turbine covers his electricity needs. Eitel says,

Basically, for our family, we have been using the wind since the beginning with windmills for water. I’ve always wanted to be able to use that wind instead of it hurting me. When it is hot and the wind is blowing, I lose money on my crop, at least now I'm making a little back. The 10 KW wind turbine at the house is a test bid to get an idea of the pros and cons of installing a much larger one to help power my irrigation wells. I love the one I've got. I have a net metering agreement so whatever energy I produce is taken off my bill at the rate that they charge me. I'm producing my electricity at retail price.

Eitel is researching installing a big turbine or several smaller ones but regulations are tricky and agreements with utilities are complicated.

The Eitel family has also made some efficiency innovations in the machine shed, including radiant floor heating and skylights throughout. Radiant flooring was installed by his dad, Glenn, for the energy savings.

Heat transfers out of the air quickly so you have to use a lot of gas or electricity to do that. Where with this, I have my boiler and it heats the antifreeze to about 111 degrees and circulates it through hoses in the floor. The concrete floor retains the heat better than air. It’s nice because the floor stays warm out here when you are working.

The machine shed also has skylights throughout. In the original section, there are square cutouts filled with plexi-glass that let in natural light. In a newer addition, however, the plexi-glass runs along the ridge of the roof on either side letting in so much light that there is no need for additional light fixtures. Talk about saving on lighting!

Progress

Mark Eitel’s farming system reflects a long-term history on the land along with a vision and commitment to systems that save water and energy while still maintaining profitability.

Investing in the future. Some would point to the high cost of SDI systems and the ongoing depletion of the Ogallala aquifer as a solid reason not to invest in high-efficiency irrigation. However, using sensible business planning and utilizing the cost-share programs available, Eitel feels the investment is a good one.

Over the course of the years, the system has worked. I’ve been using a lot less water to raise the same amount of crops. A lot of guys will use the drip tape to use the same amount of water to grow more crops. I choose to go the other way: instead of making all the money today, I want someone to be able to make the money for a hundred years.

Although the initial cost of implementing SDI and other irrigation efficiencies can be intimidating, there are programs through the USDA Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) that help offset the costs. Working with both programs, Eitel received REAP funds to install the Variable Frequency Drives on existing center pivots and the EQIP program to offset the cost of the system.

That’s one thing about the drip tape: if you take advantage of the programs they are offering, you can offset the cost. For instance, the system I did up was approximately $1,150/acre but I went through EQIP and I agreed to take a 35% reduction in my historical usage. So, they took my last 6 years and threw out the top and the bottom and got me an average of what I had actually used, which was quite a bit lower than my allotted amount since the wells have gone down. I agreed to take a 35% reduction of that average. With the grant, I ended up getting $800/acre so the cost of the SDI system ended up being only $350/acre.

Further, the savings from reduced fertilizer applications (discussed in the Energy section) help make up the extra cost.

The investment in SDI has paid off for Eitel. Over the past 5 years, one well was tested each year. In 2013, during a historic drought, the water level in this well rose 18 inches. He explains,

I am trying to save the water that is underneath me. If I pump less, the water will be there a lot longer. The whole idea is to keep my water as long as I possibly can. The water level going up is a good indication that what I am doing is working.

My big, long-term goal would be to not run out of water. You’re not going to save the Ogallala by telling people to pump less water. I’m not trying to get attention for this; this is my way to save the Ogallala.

Taking a systemic approach, the cost of high-efficiency irrigation systems can be off-set by the other resulting efficiencies. Efficiencies that set Mark Eitel ahead of the curve and help him to manage for the extremes.

You have to be ready to take advantage of the market when the market moves. We had a drought where prices went up to $8/bushel corn. I had above average crops that year because of all my water saving practices. It is extreme out here - I try to thrive not just survive.

Beyond economic benefits, Eitel feels a responsibility to maintain the viability of the family farm far into the future.

My family has lived in this area for over a hundred years now. I feel like it is my heritage and my responsibility to try to keep the family farm running as long as possible. You have to make your soil as healthy as possible and then – if you’re an irrigator – make sure that you have groundwater.

Groundwater is always a problem with the Ogallala aquifer being depleted. A lot of people are pumping out of it and we saw that our wells were coming down. So I decided a few years ago that I’ve got to use less water. Some people would say it doesn’t matter if you’re using less water because the guy next to you is going to pump it out from underneath you. That may well be the case. But I’ve got to do my part. I’ve got to use less water.  I’ve got to improve.

No-till improves water retention and holding capacity in western Kansas from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.


Video: Mark Eitel discusses the transition from furrow to subsurface drip irrigation

Mark Eitel: Saving Water for Future Generations

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RESOURCES
Getting the Lowdown on Worms
USDA Rural Energy for America Program
SDI for Corn Production - A Brief Review of 25 Years of KSU Research
Irrigation Capital Requirements and Energy Cost
Environmental Quality Incentives Program
SDI, the basics of successful systems
Iowa's NRCS: No-Till Will Preserve Soil Moisture For Next Year
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