High commodity prices, seed corn companies spur rise in irrigation in Illinois

After droughts in 2005 and 2012 led to shortages of top hybrids, seed corn companies decided to take rain into their own hands.

A Monsanto facility in Stonington, Ill., on May 19, 2015.

Since the 2012 drought, the number of irrigation pivots in Champaign County has more than doubled. Pivots are quarter- or half-mile pipe irrigation systems that turn in a circle sprinkling water on crops.

Brad Uken, the manager of the Champaign County Farm Bureau, said that one of the driving factors behind the recent growth in irrigation has been seed corn companies moving toward growers that have installed pivots to help reduce the risk of losing their crops in a drought.

“In this area, Mother Nature will take care of the rain for the most part, but if we do get a dry year, (seed companies) want to know we’re still going to produce a seed corn crop,” Uken said.

Companies that sell seed corn contract farmers to help grow certain hybrids or types of corn instead of growing corn to eat. This corn is then sold to other farmers to grow in their fields the next season. In exchange for this, farmers know exactly how much money they will make growing the crop.

If they can get a contract, farmers often choose to grow seed corn because they will receive a guaranteed income instead of being at the mercy of rain clouds and the commodity markets.

However, Uken said that the expense of installing irrigation systems limits how many are installed. They cost around $150,000 in shallow areas near the Illinois River where irrigation is prevalent but much more in Champaign County, depending on the depth of the aquifer.

Because 2012 growing conditions were poor, commodity prices went up, and farmers with decent crops made much more than in a typical year.

“In 2012, farmers made a lot of money,” said Steve Wilson, a groundwater hydrologist at the Illinois State Water Survey. “We saw a lot of irrigation pivots go up after that.”

Wilson oversees the irrigation portion of the Illinois Water Inventory Program, which keeps track of groundwater usage and irrigation systems.

When Champaign County farmer Mark Pflugmacher was considering how to spend his revenue after having a field average 190 bushels of corn per acre – a good yield in a normal year, he thought about expanding onto more land, but nearby fields were going for as much as $14,000 per acre — a high price that has since dipped to as low as $10,000.

Mark Pflugmacher with irrigation equipment at his farm just outside of Gifford, Illinois, on November 29, 2016.

Because the price of land was so high, he instead explored improving the land he already had, installing a half-mile irrigation system in one field that averaged 50 bushels of corn per acre in 2012, putting new tile in other fields and upgrading some of his machinery.

Many other farmers across the state did the same thing, according to Lauren Lurkins, director of natural and environmental resources at the Illinois Farm Bureau.

“Commodity prices were very high, and when they are, farmers tend to invest in their operation,” Lurkins said. “They might buy new tractors or build a new barn. They also might invest in their irrigation system.”

Uken agreed that these prices helped spur the growth.

“I think that plays a part in it,” Uken said, adding that commodity prices also contributed. “It’s a very expensive investment, and almost every irrigation system I’m aware of is running on seed corn.”

Of the three largest seed corn companies, none said that they require irrigation.

Monsanto doesn’t require irrigation and said they want both irrigated and non-irrigated seed corn, a spokeswoman said.

DuPont Pioneer does not require irrigation but spokeswoman Susan Mantey said “irrigated fields are high on our priority list when selecting fields, as they reduce one risk factor.”

A spokesperson for Syngenta said the company doesn’t grow seed corn in Illinois.

But officials said it’s clear that irrigation is a factor, though it may not be their unofficial policy, as many seed corn contracts have moved from the southern half to the northern half of the county in the past few years, said George Roadcap, a groundwater hydrologist at the Illinois State Water Survey. Irrigation is limited to places above the aquifer, and the Mahomet Aquifer is only over the northern part of Champaign County.

Pflugmacher doesn’t have any contracts to grow seed corn. He said he would be interested in one if it would become available, but they’re hard to come by.

He said he’s seen an uptick in farmers installing systems without seed corn contracts.

Pflugmacher’s in-laws, who also farm in northern Champaign County and have been irrigating since 1989, have 17 pivots and grow seed corn on about half of them.

Even though irrigation has greatly increased in Champaign County, it’s still very little compared to some areas of the state. Champaign County is unlikely ever to reach levels of irrigation comparable to those in Mason County, where there are more than 2,500 pivots in the sandy soil along the Illinois River.

The growth in Champaign County is likely limited by several factors, including the lack of aquifer, the parcel size and farmers’ willingness to irrigate.

Uken said it doesn’t make financial sense to irrigate a small parcel in Champaign County because drilling the well is too expensive. He also said seed corn companies need large parcels of at least 160 acres because they need buffers around the field to stop cross-pollination.

Even in northern Champaign County, the aquifer is at different depths; Pflugmacher had to drill multiple test wells around his field before finding one that worked.

Pivots also require manual labor. To start the process, Pflugmacher must drive to the well and manually start it. After it is started, the system automatically shuts off and can be controlled by an app on his phone.

“Some farmers don’t want to deal with it,” Pflugmacher said. “The farmers that I know that have irrigation are either younger or have had it in the past.”

Wilson said even though there has been significant growth in irrigation, the usage hasn’t increased because the past few years have had adequate rainfall.

“Since then, it’s been wet,” Wilson said.

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