Innovation Grant Spotlight: Underground irrigation produces high yields

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

The 2018 Innovation Grant Program is underway, with 12 farmers receiving grants from Minnesota corn to lead projects focused on nitrogen management. Throughout the summer we will be highlighting ongoing projects focused on how to better manage nitrogen and protect water quality. To learn more about each completed and ongoing project, click here. For more details and to submit a proposal for a 2019 Innovation Grant, click here.

The proof is in the yield. Before, sections of the mostly sandy 60-acre field would produce yields ranging from 100 to 250 bushels per acre of corn. Now, with an in-ground drip irrigation system, Brian and Alan Velde are producing 250 bushels per acre across the whole field.

Velde’s in-ground irrigation system.

Partly funded through the Minnesota Corn Innovation Grant Program, the state-of-the-art drip irrigation allows him to spoon-feed his crop with both water and nitrogen.

Overhead irrigation pivots are common in several areas of the state, but in-ground systems, which lose no moisture to evaporation, are still a novel innovation in Minnesota. The Velde’s system leaves aquifer water for drinking, and instead draws its permitted irrigation supply from the nearby Yellow Medicine River.

At their farm in Wood Lake, the Veldes have seen rains arriving almost weekly this year—a real outlier. But even with sufficient moisture for both irrigated and non-irrigated land, the irrigated acres are visibly greener. The difference is fertigation—or the ability to add fertility directly through the drip irrigation lines.

“When you think of it in terms of peak demand, you know that the corn is eating about seven to ten pounds (per acre) of nitrogen a day,” said Brian. “With irrigation, we put on 15 pounds every three days through that period of peak demand. It’s basically from the time the corn is shoulder high until to pollination—that’s when the corn needs a lot of N. After pollination we slowed that interval, to more like once a week.”

The uptake into the plant is immediate and nothing is left in the soil that can be washed away in a heavy rain.

Asked about what he hopes to get, ultimately, from in-ground irrigation, Brian said, “I want to see it pay for itself on the good ground. If you can show that, then you can justify it on any acre. Going forward, fertigation is going to be key in the future. It’s a perfect way to give the plant the right nutrients at the right time.”

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