Side-inlet eases rice irrigation

You could consider side-inlet irrigation for your 2002 rice crop because it can save water and may reduce your production costs, or you could follow one Mississippi farmer's lead and irrigate horizontally simply because it's easy.

Willard Jack of Belzoni, Miss., says, “In real tough economic times like now, people don't want to change what's working. But this system can save you money, and it really is easier.”

In a side-inlet irrigation system, flexible plastic pipe is placed down the side of the field, watering the field from side to side instead of from end to end. The system, which is slowly finding fans among Delta rice growers, provides water to each cut in the field at the same time through holes in the plastic pipe.

Proponents of the system say it waters a field more quickly, saves water and labor, reduces energy costs and improves weed control.

So why aren't more Delta rice farmers using side-inlet irrigation? Jack sees it this way. If every car you've ever driven had a standard transmission, you may not see any reason to make the switch to an automatic transmission the next time you buy a car. But, if you drove an automatic transmission and experienced the ease of that system, you'd most likely never go back to a standard transmission. It's the same premise, he says, for side-inlet irrigation.

“Most growers have gotten along just fine with the irrigation system they've been using and so see no need to change. However, if these same growers tried side-inlet irrigation they'd realize just how easy the system is to operate,” he says. “A lot of farmers don't realize how easy it is to irrigate your rice crop with side-inlet irrigation. It may cost a little more to run the pipe, but that expense is easily recouped.”

Jack says he's seen many advantages to the system, in addition to its ease of use. “We're no longer seeing any cold water spots in our fields, we're conserving water, and I think our yields are higher with this system.

“With this system, we can easily maintain water in every paddy,” he says. “We've found that we can keep the water level a little more stable, bring the flood on quicker, and manage our water better. And because we don't have a lot of water in the field at any given time, we can stop pumping at any time to take advantage of available rainwater, further reducing the well water needed to irrigate our rice crop.”

Extension rice specialist Joe Street at the Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, Miss., suggests other Delta growers follow Willard Jack's lead and try side-inlet irrigation on a few acres in 2002. “Try a little and see if you like it. If you don't like it you can always go back to your conventional irrigation system,” he says.

Street says preliminary research data suggests that growers lose yield for every day their post-fertilizer flood application is delayed after a fertilizer application. “If you don't get the fertilizer water-activated within five days of application, you could be losing 80 to 100 pounds of rice per acre per day, after those first five days,” he says. “Our numbers are based on only preliminary, but it's a good rule of thumb to stay within those five days.”

Side-inlet irrigation also enables rice growers to get water across the field faster than conventional irrigation systems, further reducing water use. “We figure you use one-third less water with side-inlet irrigation, and at a cost of roughly $1.50 per acre inch of water, you're looking at a potential savings of $15 per acre,” Street says.

The only downside to the system, according to Jack, is the minimal added cost of the flexible plastic pipe, and the time and labor required to lay the pipe out across a field.

In comparison, Jack says, with conventional irrigation, someone has to closely monitor how much water is going over the rice gates, and how the water is moving from paddy to paddy without the water either drying out or running out the end of the field.

LSU AgCenter irrigation specialist Bill Branch, says the few Louisiana rice growers who have tried side-inlet irrigation have been pleased with the system. “Most of our understanding of the irrigation system has come from the Arkansas Extension Service. We have had some learning curve problems because of our lack of experience, but nothing that the folks in Arkansas have not already learned.”

Jack adds, “The real reason we use side-inlet irrigation, though, is that it's just easier. When teenage boys are willing to irrigate rice, without any complaints, you know this has to be the easiest system out there.”

e-mail: [email protected].

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