Installing and maintaining subsurface drip irrigation on blackland clay soils comes with a few unique challenges. But with a growing dairy operation committed to producing as much of its feed demand as possible in-house, along with a commitment to conservation and environmental stewardship, getting the most out of every drop of water makes drip irrigation a logical choice.
Precision agriculture technology makes the chore a bit more manageable, says Jeff Fowler, crop manager for Daisy Farms, a Paris, Texas, operation that supplies raw materials to the Daisy Brand dairy product company.
The site is permitted as a 10,000 head dairy, says herd manager Jody Maxwell.
“Feeding a large dairy herd will take a lot of silage and forage production, Fowler says. A combination of subsurface drip irrigation and GPS technology—as a means of installing drip tape accurately as well as assuring precision planting, harvesting, spray application and system monitoring—makes the job a bit easier.
“Drip irrigation is close to 100 percent efficient,” Fowler says. “We put water straight to the roots; we get no runoff; we don’t need as much water. When we put on a half-inch, we get a half-inch. We don’t have to apply three-fourths of an inch to get what we need.”
Conserving resources is important to Daisy Farms, Fowler and Maxwell say. The company installed the dairy close to Paris, Texas, to serve as a model of a modern, well-run, environmentally friendly facility. Farm management takes that commitment to heart.
“We try to stretch water as far as we can,” Fowler says. “Water is not unlimited.”
He also uses the drip system to dispose of waste water from the dairy. “We run treated nutrient water through the system. The end product is clean and we have had no emitter clogging problems yet.”
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Cy McGuire, designs/consultant with Eco-Drip says the filtration system for Daisy Farms is the same type he would use for drip irrigation in West Texas.
“We have to use the nutrient water anyway,” Fowler adds. “This is the safest way to use it. We certainly don’t want it to run off into streams, lakes and ponds.” He says spraying the water through a center pivot system also could result in odor, another issue the company wants to avoid.
“We're basing our waste water irrigation on a comprehensive nutrient management plan, which is required by the state. We pay attention to the weather and we don’t apply nutrient water before a big rain.”
Alfalfa is crop of choice
Alfalfa is the current crop of choice for drip irrigation. Eventually, Fowler will water corn and some bermudagrass with a drip system. “Alfalfa is our biggest expense, so we will grow as much as we can. Round-up ready varieties help. Along with adequate water, weed control is a big concern with alfalfa.”
He’s been watering 600 acres of alfalfa, most of that through the drip system, with 250 acres under a pivot. “The pivot was a stop-gap measure to get us started,” he says. Long-term plans call for additional acreage watered by drip irrigation. “The number keeps growing,” he says.
Dairy cow numbers and increasing feed demand will influence how many acres of drip irrigation will be necessary.
He got six cuttings last year, starting in April and cutting into October. “We kept going until a freeze hit. We’re in good shape this year going into spring. It greened up early and we had to spray for alfalfa weevil in February. We will be cutting hay in the next few weeks.” He hopes as he fine-tunes the system he’ll increase tonnage.
He’s also fine-tuning irrigation scheduling. “For now, we’re just checking the soil. We fill the profile and move onto another area. We will add moisture sensors and get on a more consistent schedule. As we get our control systems set up we will improve scheduling. We may need to add water daily as the summer heat comes on. With drip irrigation, we can put a little out consistently.”
“As we were getting the system in we had to work with getting water to the fields,” McGuire says. “Now, we’re concentrating on managing the system.”
Fowler says he used an evapotranspiration (ET) monitoring system for awhile to regulate water use but found he was putting too much water on. “We started eye-balling it and putting out what the crop seemed to need.” Moisture sensors and computer technology will make the system more efficient, he says.
“At Eco-Drip we’re moving into more in-season crop management,” McGuire said. “We want to provide the best tools to manage all aspects of the system—moisture, pressure, flow, and nutrients. If something gets out of the limits the manager sets up, he will know to make adjustments.”
McGuire said installing drip irrigation in the Northeast Texas Blacklands, mostly on acreage that had been in pasture or woods for decades, provided challenges he doesn’t see in West Texas.
“It took a lot of field work,” he says. “We found a lot of shallow rock, tree stumps, and old fence lines. Barbed wire does not work well with drip tape.”
Design was critical to provide the best system to fit challenging locations. “Slope was an issue. We had to work with hills and valleys. That required pressure compensating emitters that maintain the same flow rate up or down a slope.”
He says field shapes also created design challenges. “We don’t see square fields here. But we make it work. We try to figure out the most cost-effective drip system we can. We establish row patterns to make it easier for Jeff to install and manage. We may have limitations within a field, but we work around them. We keep it as simple as possible to install and provide the best system for the lowest cost.”
GPS technology was a crucial part of the process. Fowler and his crew install the tape—for both time and cost considerations—which saves about $50 per acre. “Cy taught us how to install it. We use RTK technology and John Deere’s GreenStar. It’s accurate to one inch, so we know exactly where the tape is.”
Fowler is meticulous about tape location. “I get it set up, put it on a memory card and download it onto my computer. Then I put it into my phone and keep it with me all the time. I make certain I have tape locations.”
GPS also aids design, McGuire says. “Elevation is particularly important here because of the slope. For every 2.3 feet of elevation change, pressure changes by 1 psi. If we go up 2.31 feet, we lose 1 psi; if we go down 2.31, we gain 1 psi. We manage pressure within the system.”
“We often ask Cy if what we’re planning will work,” Fowler says. “And we change our minds a lot. Cy deals with it.”
Installation offers Fowler’s crew a few challenges, too. “We run a pre-ripper and do a dry run first,” he says. “That makes it easier to put in the tape and makes installation more uniform. The new fields come with a lot of challenges. We break off a lot of shear bolts.”
He’s selecting mostly high ground for drip irrigation. “We will not plant alfalfa on bottom land,” he says. “It drowns out too often. Alfalfa likes water, but it can’t sit in soils that are saturated for extended periods of time. We don’t plant our bottom lands because they don’t drain as well. I plant the hills because water will drain.”
As they increase acreage in drip systems and pipe water to new fields, they try to concentrate controls in as few locations as possible.
“Controllers here are a little more complex than they are in an average West Texas drip field,” McGuire says. “Information is routed to Jeff’s computer and he can pull it up at anytime and check the system. He can turn it on or off from the computer.”
They are also fine-tuning nutrient management through the system. “We can inject nitrogen straight to the roots,” Fowler says. “We can see a response in just a day or two, and we apply over time, as needed.”
“We use precision timing and precision placement of nutrients to thecrops through the tape,” McGuire says. That makes uniform distribution even more important. “When a producer starts using an irrigation system for fertigation, it becomes even more critical to have a proper system design that maximizes uniformity.”
Fowler also will inject trifluralin herbicide through the system to prevent alfalfa roots from clogging the emitters.
Technology doesn’t stop with irrigation installation and management. We plant with the RTK system, too,” Fowler says. “That’s especially important on drip irrigated fields. We also run the chopper with a GPS system.” As it cuts, the system, combined with GreenStar, records moisture, protein level, ADF, NDF, starch and other data.
He has Auto-Steer “without a few of the available bells and whistles. We still do some manual operations. But we can ‘paint’ a field and turn the sprayer on and it turns itself off when it comes to a specified location.”
Fowler says the farm’s goal is to provide as much feed as possible for the growing dairy operation. As he adds more subsurface drip irrigation he’ll concentrate on alfalfa and rotate with corn. “I’d like to get four or five years of alfalfa and then change to corn. I don’t know how well the alfalfa stand will do. We will just have to see.”