Producers need insurance coverage for limited irrigation practice
By Doug Rich
Farmers who use irrigation are facing tough decisions after experiencing back-to-back years of severe drought.
"The irrigated acres have been a real disaster for us because we just couldn't pump enough water to sustain the crops," Keith Miller, a farmer from Great Bend, Kan., said. "Typically we get a little rain through the summer, but the last two years we have not gotten any of those rains."
At his farm Miller said he had received less than 7.5 inches of rain for the year by the middle of September. Normally he would have received nearly 20 inches of moisture by that time.
Miller said the yield on his irrigated corn was around 100 bushels an acre, which is 50 to 60 bushels below normal. Miller said that in addition to the drought, high temperatures at pollination time hurt yields. The daytime temperatures were over 110 degrees when his corn started to pollinate. They kept their irrigation wells running but it did not help.
"When you pump your wells that hard, you run out of your allotment," Miller said. "We had a lot of people in this area that had to shut their wells off early while others decided to go ahead and finish their crop out and over pump their allocation."
Irrigators who over pumped their allocation face being fined and having their allotment reduced or in Kansas they can sign up for the Multi-year Flex Account. The Multi-Year Flex Account allows water right holders to obtain a five-year term permit that temporarily replaces their water right. This term permit allows the water right holder to exceed their annual authorized quantity in any year but restricts total pumping over the five-year period.
Miller said for example if a producer had an 18-inch allocation and he went over his allocation last year and went over his allocation again this year, that producer does not have a choice but to go into the flex program or get fined by the Division of Water Resources. The average use in the area has been around 13 inches over the last 10 years, so that producer has the possibility of going from an allocation of 18 inches down to an allocation of 13 inches.
"There is no way under normal conditions now that we can raise corn with that kind of allocation," Miller said. "That farmer will have to make some cropping changes."
Miller said farmers in that situation will have to plant some dryland crops and that will reduce their profit potential. He said it would have a major impact on the average totally irrigated farmer.
"The issue that farmers in this area have is that the five-year allocation is determined by usage over the last 10 years of use, minus last year," Miller said. "There were several wet years here when we did not use much water and those years are averaged in. Now they are taking a hit on what they can pump for the next five years."
Miller's irrigated fields are part of the Wet Walnut Creek Intensive Groundwater Use Control Area, which is already using a five-year allocation plan. Farmers in the IGUCA are not eligible for the Multi-Year Flex Account offered by the state.
"You have that certain amount of water and you learn to live with it," Miller said.
Miller intends to plant wheat on his irrigated acres this fall and get it out of corn. He said unless there is a lot of snow this winter he will not have the soil moisture profile needed to plant corn next spring.
"Next year at wheat harvest we will make the decision whether or not to plant soybeans or leave it idle," Miller said. "I have just enough water left to run one pass over the field to get the wheat up."
Faced with the potential for a reduced allocation farmers are wondering if they will still be able to plant and report all of their acres as irrigated for the purposes of crop insurance. The Risk Management Agency only recognizes two basic practices, irrigated and non-irrigated. If a producer's Average Production History is based on full irrigation, he might have a problem if his allocation only allows limited irrigation.
According to RMA if a producer has a reasonable expectation at the time of planting that the new allocation will provide sufficient water to produce the APH yield, he can plant and insure all the acres as irrigated. The rest of his acreage can be planted and reported as non-irrigated.
According to RMA, there are other options if a producer's new allocation requires him to apply less water than used to establish his irrigated practice production guarantee. One, he can apply the amount of water needed to produce the irrigated APH yield on fewer acres and report the remaining acres as non-irrigated. Two, he could choose to apply less water to the total acreage than is needed to achieve the irrigated APH yield and report the total acreage as non-irrigated.
"We need to figure out a way, when we don't have the water capacity, to have a covered yield halfway between the irrigated and non-irrigated yield," Miller said. "Something where you can reduce your plant population and you know you will be able to put on some water to help the crop."
"It is frustrating to us as irrigators to have an allocation, but we can only pump so much water and then have RMA telling us we need to pump more to get our full crop insurance coverage," Miller said. "This limited irrigation practice would be a good compromise."
Farmers in western Kansas, western Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and the Texas Panhandle could all benefit from a limited irrigation practice covered by federal crop insurance.
Dropping down from irrigated yields to non-irrigated yields is a significant hit for irrigated farmers since there are more input costs associated with irrigated crop production. The higher input costs include bigger fertilizer bills, a higher tax rate for irrigated acres, higher rental fees for irrigated ground, well maintenance, and irrigation system maintenance.
"There are a lot of input costs that a dryland farmer does not have," Miller said.
Even if the drought ends this fall or winter, it will have an effect on irrigated crop production for many years as producers make decisions on how to manage reduced allocations.
Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by email at email@example.com.