Turning to pivot
Much of the U.S. may be entering something similar to what Texas suffered from October 2010 until spring 2012, and what South Carolina, Georgia and Florida suffered through most of the last year — extreme and exceptional drought.
An early tropical storm in the spring named Beryl finally broke the back of the South Carolina dry spell, and for the time being, the worst of the weather retreated back to Georgia. But over the course of several rain-deficit years, many South Carolina farmers have learned a hard lesson.
“I think the fact is finally setting in with growers that we are going to have a drought once every three or four years — if not more consecutively than that,” says Tre Coleman, director of the cotton and tobacco programs for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.
“Irrigation is not necessarily going to be a magic bullet … but my take from growers that have put a lot of irrigation in over the last few years is that they don’t have to worry about drought. They know they can give their crop water when it needs it, and they can activate herbicides when they need to.”
• South Carolina, hopefully, is recovering from exceptional drought conditions now.
• In the process, more Palmetto State growers are switching to irrigation.
• Grower David Segars aims toward one day irrigating his entire operation.
Coleman says he’s read statistics that acreage under irrigation in the state nearly doubled within the last year, as people turned to pivots because of the drought.
One of those farmers who has come to depend heavily on irrigation and is expanding his use of pivots is David Segars in Hartsville. Since he went into farming in 1999, Segars has been adding pivot irrigation sets steadily, with the goal of eventually putting his entire 2,000-acre farm under irrigation.
Irrigation tops heavy equipment
Segars says he’d rather invest in irrigation equipment than in heavy equipment like tractors or combines. Big, powerful tractors usually get farmers’ blood surging, but Segars farms with just two tractors by working them overtime. However, expanded irrigation gives him something big farm equipment can’t, he says.
“Obviously, yield and predictability of yield is important to me,” Segars says. “Irrigation gives us more assurance about what we will be able to produce. We have such variable climate and such variable soil types that it is difficult to get a consistent yield without irrigation.”
Today, Segars has 12 pivot units in operation. He’d like more.
“With increased commodity prices over the last few years, I’ve stretched to a little faster pace of growth,” he says of his pivot expansion. “That makes it work on paper a little better. We can afford to spend a little more on fixed costs with higher commodity prices — and the better guarantee of making a crop that irrigation gives us.” Instead of always looking for more acres to farm, Segars’ philosophy is he’d rather produce more bushels on less acres. “I’d like to produce 150,000 bushels off, say, 700 acres, as opposed to 1,000 acres or 1,500 acres.”
The Segars operation today farms a little more than 2,000 acres of grains: wheat, corn, soybeans and grain sorghum. He also grows some seed crops, like rye, and a few specialty cover crops. In the past he’s grown cotton and peanuts, but the investment in irrigation has led him more in the direction of corn. With 850 irrigated acres, he has nearly half of his farmed acres under irrigation — so he can handle corn’s drought skittishness.
Corn can be very susceptible to drought — not so much in quantity of applied water, but in applications at just the right time.
“The timing of the rain in particular is important with corn, as opposed to cotton,” Segars says. “Cotton is resilient. It can wait for water. It will shut down and then when it rains, it will come back. But with corn, if you don’t get rain within a two-week period when the corn needs it, forget about it.
“I view irrigation as the only way I can stay in farming long term,” Segars adds. “For financial reasons and potentially for psychological reasons — that is, the pivot systems make it so I can sleep at night.”
This article published in the September, 2012 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.