How to Control Irrigation on Your Farm

By Emily Folk

An efficient irrigation system is one of your most powerful tools for agricultural production. It influences the entire growth process from seedbed preparation to yield and quality. With efficient irrigation, you'll grow more crops, reduce water stress and enjoy a diverse range of similar benefits.

At the same time, over-watering with inefficient irrigation can cause erosion, increased costs and a whole host of other issues. You have to find a comfortable balance to ensure your fields get the right amount of water. To that end, careful management of your irrigation system is key.

So what should you keep in mind when controlling the irrigation system on your property? What are the primary points to remember about water conservation and efficiency? We'll answer those questions and others like them, looking at the subject of irrigation in greater detail.

Irrigation Scheduling

You'll avoid the issues of under- and over-watering when you optimize your irrigation scheduling. This process involves the timing and quantity of water your system applies to the field, critical considerations which determine the success of your crops. You have four methods of measurement in this regard.

1.  Plant observation: Check for visual indicators of moisture depletion. Look for changes in the plants' characteristics, such as leaf color, curling or wilting.

2.  Feel and appearance of soil: Observation of the soil can help monitor moisture levels. If it's dry, loose or powdery, increased irrigation is necessary.

3.  Weather-based data: Weather-based scheduling systems which are intended to measure the amount of water lost from a crop.

4.  Soil moisture monitoring: Measured as a suction or volume of water. Different systems like tensiometers and neutron probes are available.

In summary, you have many methods for measuring moisture levels and properly irrigating your fields. The challenge comes from estimating your crop requirements for different growth stages and climate conditions. You also need to give thought to water conservation.

Water Conservation

Water is a finite resource you have to manage carefully, especially during periods of drought. Fortunately, you have a wide variety of options. You may see the appeal in a drip irrigation system, for example, which delivers water directly to a plants roots, avoiding the evaporation associated with spray watering systems.

Irrigation scheduling, mentioned in the previous section, is also a form of water conservation. When you stay up-to-date with the weather forecast and monitor soil and plant moisture, you can make the best use of your water resources. Of course, you also need a place to capture and/or contain the water.

Many farms depend on municipal water or wells, while others have built and managed ponds to capture rainfall for use throughout the year. Storage dams are another solution with proven value for irrigation, capable of holding 10,000 gallons of water or more with the aid of a pump system for delivery.

Increased Efficiency

Concerns over the energy efficiency of your irrigation system are easy to address. In many ways, the efficiency of your system directly relates to maintenance. If you're vigilant in replacing broken sprinkler heads and leaking gaskets — among other responsibilities — you'll find you have far fewer issues.

As context, pipelines which are above ground often have worn gaskets. These pipes can lose up to 30% of their water before it reaches the discharge point, so it's critical to attend to defects when and where they show up. It may take extra work, but the effort is well worth it next to the alternative.

Beyond maintenance, you should give thought to an electric motor. If your irrigation system currently runs on a diesel engine, you'll likely benefit from a replacement. The switch to electric might earn you significant cost savings, depending on the price difference in your area.

Maximize Your System's Potential

An irrigation system is one of your most powerful tools for agricultural production, but only if you know the correct way to use it. As you study scheduling, water conservation and the efficiency of your system, you'll maximize its potential and reap the rewards of effective irrigation. With that in mind, make the necessary changes and you'll see a marked improved in your operation's profitability.

About the author: Emily is a sustainability writer and avid gardener. You can read more of her work on her site, Conservation Folks, where she writes about helping tomorrow’s planet today.