Farmer Mike Robinson uses a pump to draw water from a river to irrigate his farm near Stockton, Calif. Some farmers in Iowa have invested in crop irrigation systems, which is rare in the state, since the area is usually moist.
PLAINFIELD, Iowa — Parts of northeast Iowa got much-needed rain early July 13. The trace to a few tenths of an inch that fell probably wasn't enough to save shriveling plants, but it was helpful.
Kevin Adams' fields on the southern edge of Plainfield, though, didn't get a drop of moisture from the heavens. That doesn't mean part of his farm didn't get soaked during the night.
Adams is one of the few producers in the region who owns a crop irrigation system. The center pivot waters about 65 acres of an 80-acre soybean field, one of his most porous.
"I started a sand pit next to it if that tells you anything," Adams said. "This farm would be burned up by now. (But) under the circle, it's nice and green," Adams said.
The Waterloo area is short more than 5 inches of rain since Jan. 1, according to the National Weather Service. It's the worst drought since 1988, and it has choked the area. Farmers and crop experts say big yield losses, possibly by half, are a foregone conclusion. How big, though, depends on Mother Nature.
Some parched corn and soybean fields, especially on sandy soils, are already lost. Plants in heavy, black dirt are struggling to survive.
That's not the case on Adams' irrigated plot. Beans are healthy, blooming and ready to set pods.
For the past month, the irrigation system has slowly traversed the field. It deposits an inch of water every four days.
Barring another weather disaster like hail, Adams is looking forward to the field averaging 50 bushels per acre instead of zero. With September soybeans currently selling for more than $15.50 per bushel on the Chicago Board of Trade, Adams' investment in irrigation is paying off big time.
And he's the envy of the neighborhood.
"'Can you move it to my field or make it longer?'" Adams said, repeating comments from area farmers. "I get a lot of that a lot."
The machine isn't portable like a lawn sprinkler and is anchored to a concrete pad.
Irrigation Systems Costly, But Worth It
Adams spent about $50,000 on a 1,300-foot center pivot in 2005 to replace an aging system. The sandy field has been irrigated since 1978, otherwise getting a good crop would difficult, he said. The rig is expected to last 30 years.
Adams estimates it will cost about $20 per acre to spray 10 inches of water to keep beans healthy this year.
"It's a no-brainer," Adams said.
When planted to corn, Adams' irrigated field routinely averages between 200 to 250 bushels per acre.
"You can bank on it," he said.
Less than 1 percent of row crops are irrigated in Iowa, officials said.
Terry Basol, Iowa State University Extension crop specialist based at the Northeast Iowa Research Farm near Nashua, knows of only a few in the area. Usually they're not needed, he said.
Iowa averages 34 inches of precipitation a year, statistics show. Most of the state is blessed with good, black soil capable of holding about 9 inches of moisture.
Corn and soybeans need about 24 inches of water to thrive.
"We usually get enough rain and are trying to get rid of it," Basol said, noting farmers invest in tile rather than irrigation.
Since a widespread drought is rare in the Midwest — one occurs every 19 years, on average, based on 800 years of tree ring data — Basol doesn't expect Iowa to rival its neighbor to the west when it comes to irrigation any time soon. About two-thirds of corn in Nebraska is mechanically watered, data indicates.
Interest in Irrigation Growing Statewide
There's a lot more interest in irrigation statewide, though.
Kendra Stumpenhorst, co-owner of Hook's Point Irrigation based in Stratford, said the company has been flooded with calls. Sometimes employees field more than 90 calls a day from farmers inquiring about new systems or getting broken ones running.
"I have a cordless phone and it's already gone dead twice on me this morning," said Stumpenhorst last week.
Sales doubled this year, she said. An exact number wasn't provided.
"It's just gone crazy," Stumpenhorst added.
Cost, operating and break-even estimates from Hook's weren't available. Stumpenhorst said her husband, Mark, handles that side of the business. He wasn't immediately available for comment.
Irrigation Systems Are An Insurance Policy
Little research on row-crop irrigation has been conducted by Iowa State University.
According to North Dakota State University, a center pivot that covers 128 acres costs about $65,000. Add another $41,500 for a well, pumping equipment, electric panel and other components. Yearly operating and ownership costs is about $104 per acre.
Based on improved and consistent yields, Kansas State University reports a return-on-investment of more than 30 percent for ground that needs annual irrigation to produce well.
That's not normally the case in Iowa.
Reinke Manufacturing of Deshler, Neb., builds crop irrigation systems sold at Hook's. Mark Mesloh, director of sales at Reinke, isn't surprised by the increased interest in Iowa. But he doesn't expect a ton of sales, either.
"It's an insurance policy. Iowa is not an area we concentrate on," Mesloh said.
But for those who have giant sprinklers and watering guns, they're thankful.
"This year, for those that have (irrigation), they're very well blessed," Basol said. "It more than paid for the expense."