Irrigation Education

Corn is big business in Nebraska.  In fact companies like Monsanto, my nemesis, have set up shop in the state to test plots for new genetically modified seed.  They call it progress, I call it destruction.  But, that political point is not for this post.

I love corn.  I grew up running through the corn fields.  Every weekend I spent with my grandparents during the summer, irrigating the corn was on our list of chores to help with.  Although, grandpa let me run around more than work.  Grandma recently told me that was because I wasn't fast enough!

So while I was back in Nebraska last month I was feeling a little nostalgic and I decided to follow my brother to his "office" and took a few shots to show you what he does during summer vacation.

I've introduced my brother before.  He's a pretty special guy, and father to my two favorite boys.  His office is whatever field he happens to be working in that day.  He has a true farmers tan.  

There are two typical ways to grow crops.  Dry land or irrigated.  Of course dry land means throw out some seeds, pray for rain, and hope you get a crop.  My part of Texas is predominately dry land.  If you've got a small piece of land, or you're not depending on the crop to make money (crop rotation year or food for animals) then dry land is the way to go.  

On the other hand, you have irrigated crops or crops that you have to water.  There are several ways to irrigate, but the most popular is with a pivot or through pipes laid along the edge of the fields.  Since pivots are expensive and a farmer can have several hundred acres to irrigate, there are usually more than just pivots being used in an operation. 

Where the water comes from is bit tricky and I won't go into too much detail, but if you watch national news at all you will eventually hear about the farmers fighting for their water rights.  If water is not pumped from the ground via a well then it has to come from a public water source and is called surface water.  Most of the water in Nebraska comes from snow melt in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  Farmers have water rights and the best way to explain that is like stock shares.  You have so many "shares" for your irrigated acres.  If Colorado uses your shares before it gets to you, there are issues.  So you can see where problems might arise. 

So back to the fun part. My brother took us to a quadrant of fields that are flood irrigated through pipes via a well.  No water right to argue over there, the water is pumped straight out of the Ogallala Aquifer from a private well.  

This particular well feeds water to all four fields.  Each field is flooded every twelve hours.  A farmer doesn't have a summer.  You hope to get rain to fill in the other hours or to pump less out of the ground, but otherwise you are out in the fields at least every twelve hours, all summer if all goes well.

The first step is driving to the middle of the quadrant down a long, bumpy road.  No A/C even in 100 plus days.  It's not good for the body or the truck that can sit idle sometimes.  

First you have to have unhook the pipe from the last field you irrigated and then hook up the pipe to field you need the water in now.  This is all done through a riser.  A lot of technical jargon with the use of the riser so just think of it as a junction to help send the water in the right direction.  You want the water to travel as little as possible because once it's pumped out of the ground it depends on gravity to move it.  The farther it has to travel the less pressure it has and that means it won't saturate an entire row. If you don't get this right you have a bunch of corn at the end of your field that doesn't get watered. 

Once all the pipes are in place you head back to the well, check the oil, the pressure, yadda, yadda and then start the pump for the allotted time.  

It's very important to check that your well is pumping the accurate amount of water and no alarms are going off.  The pump is a machine and since you depend on it to pull water out of the ground for your crops, it's important to maintain.  Too much water or too little water can ruin your entire crop. 

Once all is good to go it's time to open the gates on the pipes.  It's important to carry a shovel with you when walking through the middle of a cornfield.  Not for irrigating, but for killing rattle snakes.  Mice love corn, snakes love mice, you do the math...

Although you can't see it in a photo, there is a small opening that runs between each row of corn.  It's covered with a sliding door.  When the well is pumping the water to this pipe the pressure is starting to build with all of the gates closed and it's filling the pipe that travels to the end of the field.  Once that happens you start on the far end and begin to open all the gates, one by one, as you walk back towards the well.  The water gushes out of the pipe and runs down the row.

You can see the water traveling down the row and delivering water to the corn on both sides.  It is almost like a science to get the water equation just right.  If anything goes wrong it can make or break your salary for the year.  Talk about pressure.

This in a nutshell is flood irrigation via a well.  When September comes, it will be time to pick up all the pipe and store it for winter and then harvesting begins.  His job is never boring.  I wish I could spend more time with him out there.

Would you do this all summer in 100 degree weather?