Irrigating soybeans with less labor

Willard Jack doesn't grow as many non-irrigated soybeans as he used to. Over the last five years, Jack says, he's done several things.

“We spent the time and money to grade some land and we quit farming some fields. I was growing early narrow-row Group 4s and some of the land didn't fit into my scheme. I'm not saying growing dryland soybeans can't work, but at current prices it's very difficult,” says Jack, who spoke at the Tri-State Soybean Forum and Southern Soybean Conference in Dumas, Ark., on Jan. 4.

Jack, who farms corn, cotton, rice and soybeans near Belzoni, Miss., still grows a few irrigated Group 4s. However, his primary crop is early-planted Group 5s.

“This year, my operation seemed to be the only one that was wet early. Usually we plant our soybeans before planting cotton and after corn.”

“We irrigate out of fish ponds, wells and lakes. We use hard pipe and run water uphill and downhill. Not everything is perfect. We use every irrigation system, including pivots, which we have on 1,400 acres — about the same acreage that we row water.”

Most of Jack's crop is in a rotation. He grows corn and beans, corn and cotton, and rice and beans. People often ask why Jack grows corn on cotton land. The land, he says, isn't that good — it's “pretty heavy buckshot.”

As far as scheduling, Jack simply starts watering when it gets dry and doesn't look back. “With pivots, my philosophy is to start early, go hard and hope they don't break down. Pivots work wonderfully for the first five to 10 years. The next 10 to 15 years, pivots are a bit tougher with maintenance. My pivots are around 22 years old and they're reasonably successful.”

One thing that's a bit of a trick with pivots is the way to deal with wheel tracking. Jack takes a rice levee plow, follows the track and plows up a levee. The pivots walk on the levees and keep out of deep ruts.

“With all our pipe — hard or flexible tubing — we try to get all our motors serviced at the same time so we're ready to go early. We try to get our flexible tubing rolled out on a rainy day.”

The irrigation system Jack has set up is, in great measure, a necessity because of his labor force. “It's hard to get anyone to work Saturdays. On Sunday mornings, I'm usually alone. So we try to start early in the week. If it looks like we might need water on the crop over the next week to 10 days, we start early.

“We've found in row watering that if we run water when it isn't too dry, the water moves quicker and gets off quicker. That means we don't over-water. I think it's better to run a little early than to wait a little late. Get the water on the field before the cracks are able to open too wide.”

Jack has a sign on his shop door that reads, “Think, man, think.”

“I always want to know where the crop will be 10 days down the road. Watch the forecasts. There's a big difference in water needs at 75 degrees and at 100 degrees.”

For the last two years, Jack has used some large, H valves that he had made. “We divide certain fields into thirds. We run one line of flexible tubing all the way down and lay it on the ground. Then we run another line in front of it about two-thirds of the way down the field. We then use a big H valve in the back line and front line. The H valve allows us to put water in three spots without ever opening or closing a gate.”

With this system Jack has been able to take two or three people out of his watering crew.

“I don't know if the system is any cheaper. But by the end of the summer, things are wild — someone is trying to harvest corn, someone is involved in something else, the football season starts and my irrigation crew goes back to school. The beans still need to be watered, and I'm left by myself. I can water the beans myself because there's a pin in the valve. Using that, I can move water to another row.”

It does cost a little more. How much more? It's really simple, says Jack. If you have a field where the pipe costs $5 an acre, you'll need to raise that to about $10 per acre. Plus you have to pay for the valve, which can be constructed out of steel or plastic. Jack's are aluminum, so they're easier to move.

“The big thing about irrigation is management. The worst thing I ever heard someone say regarding this is, ‘Man, I don't want to worry about watering these cheap soybeans.’ Well, if you're not thinking about watering soybeans in July, you probably shouldn't have planted and started watering them at all. If you're going to water beans, you should start planning early — get everything laid out and dug. Once that's done, you can hope you never have to run the system. But even with an extremely wet year, I still ended up irrigating everything at least once.”

e-mail: [email protected].

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