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Overhead irrigation systems combined with conservation tillage is an exciting melding of technology and production agriculture.
Wilke says Bolthouse has experienced a 30 percent reduction in water use with the pivots along with improved carrot quality. “When you use less water, you use less fertilizer and pesticides,” he said. Many of the nutrients and pesticides are applied through the pivots, reducing tractor and aerial application costs.
With pivots, Bolthouse has parked pipe-hauling trailers and trucks and the maintenance cost of that equipment. And no more leaky gaskets — a common malady of portable solid set. “You may lose productive ground with a pivot, but when you put it all together, you save more on the other side and get more yields per acre and better quality.”
Reduced water use is attributable to improved application water uniformity with pivots. Mitchell said catch-can experiments and refined irrigation sprinkler packages have achieved a 93 percent uniformity rate.
Mitchell said overhead sprinklers eliminate the need for beds and irrigation checks, playing right into conservation tillage where crops can be planted directly into previous crop residue without major tillage.
“Five years ago we had no center pivots on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley,” said Mitchell. Now there are dozens. “It is still small, but with the dwindling water supply and the shortage of reliable labor the number will grow.”
He does not believe the water crisis will go away. He points to the Oglala Aquifer in the Midwest and Texas where severely depleted groundwater supplies limit the amount of water farmers can legally pump.
So far there are no groundwater pumping restrictions in California’s agricultural areas. However, many believe that day is coming to an end, which will only further limit water supplies.
The resurgence of interest in center pivots in the West has the USDA-NRCS office considering a public demonstration plot to encourage growers to switch, according to Chris Hartly, from the Stanislaus County NRCS office.
NRCS has $40 million available in EQIP conservation money to support water conservation improvements, like center pivots, by cost sharing with growers.
He said NRCS could pick up as much as half the cost of a $100,000 pivot.