Hot 5: Subsurface Irrigation. Food Price Infographic. Ethanol Mandate. Crop Insurance. Pasture Conditions.

1. Is Subsurface Irrigation the Way of the Future?

Just because you don’t see a center pivot on a corn or soybean field doesn’t mean that it’s not being irrigated. Subsurface irrigation has been around for decades, but improved technology is advancing its use which has many potential benefits. Computer programs can run the systems and geo-referenced maps of the irrigation layout can be followed when planting crops.

Advantages of subsurface irrigation systems include:

  • Water savings.
  • Improved crop yields.
  • No surface evaporation.
  • No soil and nutrient run-off.
  • Nitrogen/nutrients can be applied at the root.
  • Less disease and weeds.
  • Reduces labor required for irrigating.
  • There is uniform moisture at the root zone.
  • Reduces amount of energy required for pumping.
  • It is especially suitable for hot, windy regions.
  • Its use is valuable for vegetable crops, alfalfa, sweet corn, melons, potatoes and other crops, in addition to corn, soybeans, and cotton.

Disadvantages include:

  • Initial cost requirement. (Cost will vary according to the water source, quality, filtration need, choice of material, soil characteristics and degree of automation desired.)
  • Clogging and leaking problems.
  • Vulnerable to rodent damage.

A 2009 Colorado State University study estimated that a subsurface drip irrigation system costs $1000 to $2000 per acre and lasts 12 to 15 years, or up to 20 with good maintenance. CSU adds that “if center pivots last 20 to 25 years, these must last 10 to 15 years to be economically competitive.”

Because systems vary greatly, below are four examples for comparison.


Here’s what Nebraska grower Kurt Torell had to say about the NETAFIM system:

Torell was immediately interested in the potential of drip irrigation when, in 1998, articles on the subject started appearing in farming publications in the Midwest. … Having the system running itself and switching zones automatically will be another huge leap in efficiency. After that, we’ll also start using the system to deliver nutrients to the crops. At that point, I think we’ll be able to yield 275 to 300 bushels per acre for corn, 80 to 90 bushels per acre for soybeans. And I’m not even sure that’s the ceiling. … I get more yield with the same amount or less water, and drip drastically reduces my labor and maintenance costs. … My drip systems cost a lot less to insure than my center pivots. And the fact that the surface soil stays dry has turned into a real savings on my weed control program. The weeds just don’t germinate like they do with center pivot and flood irrigations. We’ve even realized a significant energy savings because of more efficient pumping. … The maintenance is minimal for the returns. I manage rodents to protect my driplines, but any grower should do that anyway. I do the recommended chemical injections, an annual clean-up flush, and I drain the pipes each year before the freeze. []


This system claims to reduce water usage by 70 percent over sprinkler systems. It waters at the root level with a power jet spray that aerates the root zone before each watering. []


From Toro’s website:

Toro drip irrigation systems feature Aqua-Traxx® drip tape to ensure reliable, efficient delivery of water and fertilizer to each plant. Aqua-Traxx is injected 12-20” below the surface, usually 60” apart on center, and is left in the ground to service future crops for many years to come. The AquaTraxx lines are serviced by a series of permanent pipes, valves, filters, control, injection and monitoring equipment to allow for irrigation and fertigation on demand, and periodic flushing to ensure system longevity. Water and fertilizer are slowly delivered directly to the root zone at low pressure with virtually no runoff, deep percolation, evaporation, surface ponding or wind drift.

The system is easily adaptable to hilly terrain or odd shaped parcels, and may be operated either manually or automatically to reduce irrigation labor costs. In addition, the system is compatible with reduced or no-tillage practices. Properly designed, installed, operated and maintained drip systems may last 20+ years, and in many cases the system pays for itself in less than two years! []


In the above video, Beck’s Hybrids and AGREM explain the installation of a sub-irrigation system near Atlanta, Indiana. The system drains the field with tiles and also sub-irrigates it. The project uses one-third to one-half the water of center pivots, controls the nitrate run-off pollution, requires less fuel, and increases yields. The AGREM Sub-irrigation System claims to be the only system available that combines the benefits of contoured drainage with irrigation. AGREM does ongoing studies of its system with the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited. []

Check for monetary incentives from government programs when installing irrigation systems that save water usage.

Insights from readers who have experience with subsurface irrigation are welcomed. If you know of a good subsurface system not included above, please add it to the comments.

2. CME Group’s Infographic on Food Prices

Click to enlarge.

3. What Percent of this Year’s U.S. Corn Crop Will be Required to Fulfill the Ethanol Mandate?

I’ve simplified the answer to the question by ignoring RINS credits and ethanol in storage, cutting to the crux of the issue. And of course, final corn crop production numbers are premature.

To do my calculation, I used the following:

  • To produce the 13.2 billion gallons of ethanol mandated this year requires 4.7 billion bushels of corn.
  • U.S. corn yields may average 117.6 bushels an acre this year, according to the results of a survey of 1,900 growers by Farm Futures magazine. This would amount to 9.86 billion bushels.

In 2013 the ethanol mandate will rise to 13.8 billion gallons, an increase of 4.5 percent over this year.

4. Explaining Crop Insurance

Art Barnaby, Kansas State Research and Extension, considers common questions from farmers regarding this year’s revenue protection coverage and if insurers will be able to cover all indemnity payments.

This is the best that I’ve seen or read about crop insurance coverage this drought year.

5. Pasture and Range Condition (48 States)

Pastures have dried up, and hay and corn are expensive. Owners are again faced with culling their cattle and horses. Livestock are the number one casualty of this drought.

One thought on “Hot 5: Subsurface Irrigation. Food Price Infographic. Ethanol Mandate. Crop Insurance. Pasture Conditions.

  1. K.M. Post author

    This comment is an update, or follow-up to the subsurface irrigation subject above that I’m writing after visiting with an irrigation expert in my county today. He said that systems like this work best in soils with finer textures and that chemicals may need added for fungus control and there can be problems with root invasion. Because pivot systems are now 80-85 percent efficient, he wasn’t as keen on drip subsoil irrigation systems as he thought they would require diligent maintenance by the owner as well as the additional expense of the GPS for the tractor.


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