Investing in Irrigation: 3 Things to Consider

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Irrigation has become a critical method for farming success in the drier regions of the United States. According to the USDA, there are nearly 58 million irrigated acres nationwide, with a large chunk of it located in the western Corn Belt. Nebraska currently leads the charge with 9.3 million irrigated acres, followed by Colorado’s 2.5 million.

In seasons of little rainfall, much like the drought conditions we experienced across most of the Corn Belt in 2023, irrigation can be a method that helps us fight those tough conditions. But before you consider implementing an irrigation system on your farmland, you should weigh the following critical factors: water availability, profit analysis, and system selection.

1. Water Availability

First, you’ll want to assess if an adequate water source can be accessed. Most irrigated acres get their water from underground streams or reservoirs which is pumped up to the surface via a pump and power source. Other sources of water can be from canals established for that purpose or from other miscellaneous water sources like rivers, streams and ponds. The High Plains states tap into plentiful underground water from the Ogallala Aquifer, which helps enable over 12 million irrigated acres. More arid locations in the Corn Belt may lack an abundant aquifer or other water source. Additionally, water rights also need to be considered.

2. Profit Analysis

Another consideration is to understand whether it is cost effective to irrigate land versus letting it remain a dryland farm. For example, lets take a look at growing corn in western Nebraska versus growing corn in northern Illinois.

By adding water to a dryland farm in western Nebraska, a corn producer can, on average, increase their yield from around 80 bushels per acre to around 250 bushels per acre. The farm in Illinois may only increase their average corn yield by 10 bushels per acre, as there are some years when the irrigation system would never be used due to plentiful rainfall. Knowing that it would cost approximately the same amount of money per acre to develop both farms, the return on the irrigation investment in Nebraska is much higher than the Illinois farm.

3. System Selection

Once the two factors mentioned above have been considered, a producer may move forward with developing the land into an irrigated parcel. There are three main types of irrigation used for row crops. The most common is a center pivot irrigation system. This type of system is highly effective at applying an even amount of water to every acre on a timely basis. The second most common is the age old flood irrigation system, sometimes called gravity irrigation. The third type is a sub-surface drip irrigation system. All three types have their pros and cons and a producer would need to understand the parcel being developed to be able to choose the type that fits the best.

In summary, water availability, profitability analysis, and system selection are the three critical factors when investing in irrigation. Evaluating these helps ensure irrigation pays off in unlocking a land’s agricultural potential, especially for arid regions dependent on irrigation for profitable farming.

If you have questions on irrigation and whether it would be a good fit for your farm, we encourage you to reach out to a Hertz farmland professional near you to discuss your options.


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