Farmers hope to hit paydirt with water
JANESVILLE "That looks promising," said Tim Lippins, nodding toward a cell of dark clouds that was forming southwest of Janesville late Friday morning.
Lippins, an irrigator mechanic with North Central Irrigation in Beloit, was perched atop an irrigation pivot, working to repair a malfunctioning end gun in an alfalfa field south of Janesville.
The promising storm cell eventually did yield between three-tenths and one-half an inch, the first significant rainfall in the area in nearly two months.
Even with the rain, Lippins' work is unlikely to slow much.
"Monday through Saturday, it's run, run, run," he said. "I know the farmers wish we were working Sundays, too, because when we come in Monday morning, there's a lot of work waiting for us."
"In a year like this, there is no money to be made without Pam and Jeff Chesmore (owners of North Central Irrigation)," said Willie Hughes, who grows roughly 5,000 acres of corn, soybeans, small grains and specialty crops. "Everybody's got an emergency, and they all need it fixed now."
In past years, the Hughes farm ran irrigators during the off-peak hours of 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. to save on the electric bill.
"All that wisdom has gone out the window this year," he said. "We run them until they break and then fix them and get them running again."
Hughes said gearboxes that drive each set of wheels are "notorious" for malfunctioning, and they tend to break down in the tallest corn.
Blown fuses, electrical or circuit problems and worn-out sprinkler units are also common issues.
The Hugheses irrigate about 30 percent of their acreage, using 10 irrigation pivots, the largest of which covers almost 300 acres in one sweep.
One of those 10 pivots is not yet hooked up to the power grid, so the Hugheses have hooked it up to a generator rented from Fabco.
"They charge by the hour, and we've had it hooked up for just over a week," Hughes said. "As expensive as that is, it's nothing compared to what we'd lose on our yield without the moisture."
David Arndt and his family farm 2,700 acres of corn, soybeans and alfalfa south of Janesville. The Arndts irrigate 1,600 acres, using 14 center-pivot irrigators and one traveling hose irrigator.
"We move it somewhere everyday," Arndt said of the traveling hose irrigator. "We usually water with it four or five times a year. This year, it's been 25 times."
In terms of efficiency, though, it's nearly impossible for any irrigator to match a summer thunderstorm.
"To put one inch of rain on a circle that's about 140 acres, that's about 3 million gallons of water, and it takes three days to do that," Arndt said. "A thunderstorm could do that in 45 minutes."
Inefficiencies aside, irrigation is saving some fields from turning into total losses.
"Most of the land we water is lighter, sandier soil," he said. "Without irrigation, the yield there will be zero."
Irrigation technology has improved in recent years. Willie Hughes said that eight of his farm's 10 pivots are hooked up to a remote management system that allows growers to monitor and control pivots from a smart phone or online computer.
"Even five years ago, this was unheard of, at least for me," he said.
Hughes said bringing the irrigators online was not cheap, but the system pays for itself with convenience and time saved.
"If we had a huge storm cell coming, and we had seven irrigators running throughout the county, I would've had to go manually turn off these huge lightning rods (the irrigators) by hand during a lightning storm, and that would've taken hours," he said. "Now, it's a matter of seconds."
UW Extension crops and soil specialist Jim Stute estimates that 5.2 percent of Rock County's cropland is irrigated.
That number could rise, though, at least temporarily. On Tuesday, Gov. Scott Walker declared a state of emergency in areas of the state hit hardest by the drought.
The declaration eases the permit process required for farmers seeking to use water from nearby rivers, lakes and streams for irrigation.
Marty Griffin, the waterway science and policy coordinator at the state Department of Natural Resources, said "a lot" of farmers across Rock County have already applied for permits.