As farmers continue to streamline the planting and picking process with widgets and apps, perhaps the primary focus is still on irrigation.
“Everything we do here in California now has to be hands-free,” said California Imperial Valley grower Carson Kalin.
The advent of drip irrigation moved growers a bit closer to this end.
Whether buried or laid along the surface, drip technologies certainly made irrigating a less intensive process than driving ditch lines, opening gates or manually moving miles of aluminum pipe.
The next generation of irrigation technology blends practices while adding a new twist to achieve a much-less labor-intensive process.
Certa-Set, manufactured by North American Specialty Products (NASP) in Lodi, Calif., offers the latest rrigation technology that is one-part new and one-part tried-and-true.
NASP has used specialty PVC pipe for years in municipal water systems and mining applications. Recently, the company introduced its PVC piping systems for row crop and turf grass applications as an option over aluminum pipes and risers.
What makes the system unique isn’t solely its leak-proof, corrosion-resistant design, but in how it is placed and moved in the field.
Moving aluminum irrigation pipe takes time and a lot of manual labor. Certa-Set changes this by allowing the PVC system to be installed, moved and even harvested under by mechanical means.
Take alfalfa as an example.
Kalin grows 600 acres of it in the Imperial Valley. He recently experimented with the Certa-Set system on 35 acres of alfalfa to see if the system makes sense for his operation. Unlike standard aluminum pipe, which is manually moved before and after mowing and baling, Certa-Set allows harvesters to drive under the pipe when cutting hay.
Kalin’s concept was to see if the different way of irrigating his alfalfa would improve water efficiency.
Aside from alfalfa, Kalin grows sugar beets, carrots, dehydrated onions, wheat and Sudangrass in California’s low desert region that borders Arizona and Mexico. It’s an unforgiving location wrought with soil and climatic challenges. Summers are known for their relentless heat and the saline soil in this region below sea level presents its own set of challenges.
The winter climate offers an excellent venue for growing vegetables. Most months of the year temperatures in the Imperial Valley can exceed 100 degrees and have been known to top 120 degrees during the summer months.
“Your evapotranspiration is skyrocketing at that point and it’s hard to keep up,” said Kalin’s ranch manager Gerry Merten.
On the plus side, water is cheap at $18.50 per acre foot. Still, water is not an endless supply as growers are limited to 5.45 acre feet per acre of Colorado River water. Groundwater is not used to irrigate crops because of its high salt content.
California’s water challenges and competition for Colorado River water from cities including San Diego have farmers like Kalin forced into saving water to irrigate crops. Even with flood irrigation, alfalfa in the Imperial Valley is deficit irrigated, but not by choice.
“Alfalfa down here is in water deficit at any time during the summer,” said Merten. “You can irrigate it and you’re not going to get enough water on it.”
The advantages of overhead sprinklers in alfalfa are several, according to Kalin and Merten.
Sprinklers irrigate new alfalfa stands at germination. Once the crop is established, growers move to flood irrigation to grow the crop. If alfalfa is grown for seed, Kalin uses sprinklers to bring it back from seed because flooding at that point, particularly in the high heat of summer, would scald the crop.
Irrigating alfalfa with sprinklers allows Kalin into the fields quicker to cut and bale after his last irrigation, a benefit that flood irrigation does not allow. Cutting and baling under the irrigation line is another benefit.
Kalin did not go all-in on his use of the Certa-Set system in his alfalfa. His fields were still set up with borders for flood, which made it challenging to place the pipe and harvest under it in some instances. Still, he admits the idea of no borders and driving under the irrigation pipe is intriguing.
“If you’re going to set this up as part of your program without borders then it’s a great deal,” said Merten.
Kalin and other Imperial Valley farmers are encouraged by the Imperial Irrigation District to utilize on-farm water conservation measures, “and this was one of those ways we thought we could do that,” Kalin said.
The ability to harvest and work under the Certa-Set pipe eliminates the need for hand crews to continually move pipe. The system can be configured on a tractor to move the pipe over and place it in a different row.
Kalin admits that the Certa-Set system could be an excellent fit with his carrots and other crops.
“I’ve seen six field movements of irrigation pipe in carrot operations here,” Kalin said.
Carrots can be irrigated by flooded furrow or overhead sprinkler. Flooded furrow is arguably not as efficient as overhead sprinklers.
“You waste a lot of water furrow irrigating carrots,” Merten said.
Another benefit the plastic pipe presents for growers in Kalin’s region is in longevity of the pipe when compared to other irrigation systems.
For instance, new aluminum pipe can deteriorate in weeks in the alkaline soils of the Imperial Valley. Oxidized aluminum pipe does not have quite the deterioration problem, Kalin says.
The eight-inch, lay-flat irrigation pipe he’s used with his drip systems has been problematic since it lasts perhaps four seasons.
“The plastic in these systems just wears away and it starts to leak,” Kalin says.
To combat deterioration problems with aluminum pipe, Kalin says growers elevate their pipe with wood blocks to keep it out of the alkaline soils.
Further benefits of the Certa-Set system include its sealed fittings, which prevent leaks that are not only wasteful from an irrigation standpoint, but present problems in lettuce, according to Kalin.
Another benefit of the sealed system is holding water when the irrigation is turned off, further boosting irrigation efficiency.
According to Bradley Pinnell, senior territory manager for North American Specialty Products, his company joined forces with Rain For Rent to offer the Certa-Set option for farmers.
“Rental is a very feasible option for growers,” Pinnell said. “It makes the transition more affordable for the grower.”
Guillermo Chavez, industrial sales representative with Rain For Rent in Imperial, Calif., says his company has committed to purchase equipment to pull Certa-Set pipe into farm fields, which can be done at about five acres per hour.
Labor advantages notwithstanding, Kalin sees a definite food safety advantage of keeping labor crews out of vegetable fields as much as possible.
Moving to overhead sprinklers and away from flood can also aid in controlling runoff which Merten characterizes as “a big deal down here.”