Men and equipment pushed to limit...

Irrigation made Arkansas cotton crop You don't have to look far to see what irrigation did for Arkansas cotton producer Joe Whittenton this season. By early September, any cotton that was out of reach from one of Whittenton's eight center pivots was 80 percent open and ready for picking. The watered cotton was still maturing out an ample boll load.

The crop-saving irrigations did not come without a price, however. They pushed Whittenton and his crew to the edge of exhaustion.

"Sixteen circles," Whittenton answers when asked what the hardest-working center pivot did this year. "I didn't have a day off in two months."

Whittenton, who farms corn, soybeans and 950 acres of cotton at Forrest City, cranked up the pivots (all Valleys) on July 1 and watered steadily until Sept. 3. "Our last good rain was 73 days ago, an inch on June 26," Whittenton said. "We got 0.10 inch on July 21 and 0.05 inch on July 30. That's it."

Cotton requires at least 14 inches of water during July and August to make a crop. With each circle putting out 0.75 to 0.8 inch, Whittenton's center pivots provided most of the crop's needs - as much 12 inches of water - during the critical months.

The scene was the same across much of the South, according to Phil Tacker, agricultural engineer with the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. "During the past three years, many areas have gone two months or longer without a significant rain. A drought might only last 10 days, but that's all it takes to reduce yields if plants are stressed at critical stages in their growth. Irrigating during these critical states can make all the difference for a crop."

Whittenton purchased his first pivot in 1984 after a near-disastrous cotton crop in 1983. "I had a great dryland crop going, but it burned up under the drought."

The next year, he convinced a skeptical banker that he needed a center pivot to help avert future losses due to drought. Each year, he's added more irrigation capacity and is now 100 percent irrigated in cotton except for the corners.

"Having the center pivots has meant the difference between whether I farmed or didn't farm," the producer said. "Through the 1980s, I would never have made it."

Irrigation doesn't pay off every year, however. There have been years, like 1992 and 1994, of little or no difference in yield between Whittenton's non-irrigated and irrigated crops. "But in 1991, we had a 900-pound yield difference between dryland and irrigated cotton."

Whittenton is still trying to find the upper limits of cotton yield potential for his soil type, a Loring silt loam. "I don't think 1,300 to 1,500 pounds is unreasonable. In 1997, some fields picked at that level."

In the mid-1980s, Whittenton used tensiometers to help him determine when to irrigate, "but it was more work than I was getting out of it. I got an irrigation scheduler program, but when it said to water, I was already watering. So I just go out in the field and schedule it myself."

All the hours put on the pivots the last three years have resulted in more gear boxes going out and having to be replaced. But all in all, the pivots have been very dependable, according to Whittenton. "I have one that's now on its 17th crop."

Two of the center pivot systems are computerized. "That comes in handy," the producer says. "One is in a field where we have obstacles. I can program it to walk around to the obstacle, reverse itself and come back around. That one has an overlap with another pivot and I can program it to speed up through the overlap. That saves water and diesel."

Keeping fuel in the engines powering the pivots kept Whittenton and his crew on their toes this year. Unfortunately, the drought brought out the worst in human nature. "Diesel thieves emptied two tanks that I know of this year. I guess there's a good black market for it."

The biggest challenge for growers looking to install center pivots is having the cash flow to make payments on the system, usually five to seven years, according to Tacker. "Once the system is installed, the cost of labor and fuel to run it is small compared to the returns."

Tacker said that a quarter-mile center pivot, which will water 130 acres, will usually require an initial investment of $400 to $500 per acre.

In 2001, Whittenton and two other producers, Jim Lindsey and Jim Hughes, plan to install an underground drip irrigation system on one or two cotton fields. "In west Texas (which Whittenton visited recently), the drip looked phenomenal. But how that translates to our environment is unknown. We could find out that it's too expensive. But then again, it might be the best thing we ever did."

Water issues are a big concern for Whittenton, who is on the local soil conservation board. "That's another reason why we're looking at drip. In this part of the county, we're still doing okay. For right now. But if we keep pumping like we're pumping right now, we're going to run out of water. There's no question. We can't keep doing this."

A couple of wet seasons could solve that problem. Better yet, higher prices would take some of the pressure off producers to produce high yields, according to Whittenton. And that would suit him just fine.

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