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Farmers share benefits of no-till, drip irrigating

TORRIE COPE tcope@idahopress.com © 2015 Idaho Press-Tribune
Jul 26, 2015

NAMPA — Bob McKellip expects to get a 35 percent higher yield of peppermint oil from his fields this year, despite using half the water and fertilizer of conventional methods

The change is thanks to the farmer's drip irrigation systems.

And farmer Glen Edwards is finding new ways to save money, too. He estimates he saves hundreds of dollars on fuel costs alone using a no-till method on his farm, while also conserving water, maintaining soil health and having better yields on his grains.

HIGHER YIELDS WITH DRIP IRRIGATION

McKellip installed a drip irrigation system for his peppermint crop on a 35-acre field in Nampa four years ago. It was the first time the system was used to grow peppermint, which meant McKellip wasn't sure how it would turn out.

The result is he can get higher yields using half the amount of water and fertilizer used in conventional irrigating methods, while protecting nearby waterways. The finished product — the peppermint oil — is also clearer than what he got from conventional methods, resulting in a higher quality product for his customers.

Water is pumped from canals and filtered before it goes into the irrigation tape that is buried 7 inches under ground and 30 inches apart on his 35-acre field. The tape has an emitter every 12 inches and a wafer inside that regulates the water, which makes it 95 percent accurate in the amount of water delivered to the plants, McKellip said.

“They're more accurate than a sprinkler nozzle by quite a bit,” he said.

He irrigates the crops two to three times a week and gets a report of the exact amount of water the crop uses each day.

The system is semi-permanent, so McKellip plans to use it to irrigate other crops grown in the field. It's expected to last about 10 years before it will need to be replaced, but McKellip says it could last longer than that.

Thanks to the drip irrigation system, the crop is uniform, the soil stays soft without standing water and there's no runoff.

“The wastewater that comes off this field dumps into the Five Mile Creek, and the Five Mile Creek goes directly into the Boise River,” McKellip said.

That's why it's important there's no runoff from McKellip's field, which would bring sediment and phosphorous into the creek and river.

Estimates provided by the Idaho Soil and Water Conservation Commission show drip irrigation on the 35-acre field and another 60-acre field McKellip farms keeps 109 tons of sediment and 218 pounds of total phosphorous out of the waterways each year, while saving 88 acre feet of water.

The 60-acre field is a year newer and has a more advanced system thanks to partnerships with several companies and local agencies. It's radio controlled and is 98 percent accurate. The tape is also spaced 22 inches apart and is 9 inches under the ground.

McKellip first planted sugar beets with the system then switched to peppermint last year on the 60 acres.

Without the partnerships, the system would have cost about $1,400 per acre, but it pays for itself in three years and can last about 10, he said.

EQUIPMENT PURCHASE LETS FARMERS TRY NO-TILL METHOD

Glen Edwards had two, no-till drills on display at his farm Thursday, but they wouldn't be there long.

Since the first drill was purchased in 2012, it's been used on 2,500 acres, mostly in Canyon and Ada counties, Edwards said.

Edwards has been practicing the no-till method on his farm for four years, and although he's not fully converted yet, he said he's headed in that direction.

With no-till farming, instead of tilling and plowing his fields — going over them three or four times — he uses the no-till drill just once. That saves time, labor and fuel costs.

“With the no-till drill, you don't have to plow and work the ground. All you have to do is put seed in the drill and go plant it,” Edwards said.

Last fall, he used the no-till drill on an 11-acre field that had old orchard grass in it. It took him three hours with the drill to plant new wheat and clear the field.

“That saved me three days of plowing and tilling and fuel,” he said. “The fuel savings with no-till farming is just unbelievable.”

A conventional grain drill has a row of discs, but the no-till drill has two rows spaced 15 inches apart with a high clearance so debris doesn't get stuck. There's a cutter disc that opens the ground and can slice through anything except rocks, Edwards said.

The Ada district has two no-till drills — a 15-foot drill for larger acreage and a 7.5-foot drill for smaller acreage — that can be rented. They have seed baskets and feeder tubes for seeds and will take seeds for grains and grasses and to plant cover plants, another method that has become popular.

“A lot of guys are starting to put in cover crops in the fall to protect their soil during the winter so it doesn't have wind or water erosion,” he said.

In addition to the savings he's seen with fuel and labor, the no-till method helps maintain soil health by not disturbing the soil as much and it conserves water. When the discs go into the corrugated field, they cut into the sides and open it enough to get better water penetration in the soil, Edwards said, resulting in less run-off that can take top soil with it.