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FARM SCENE: Irrigation costs growing for farmers

NORFOLK, Neb. — Irrigation systems may prove to be the salvation of producers, but they are a costly substitute for rain.

Drought conditions have passed the one-year mark in some parts of Nebraska. Significantly below-average rain and nonexistent subsoil moisture have made for a heavy irrigation season.

Jon and Vicky Langenberg farm southeast of Norfolk and run 13 center-pivot irrigation pumps. About half are diesel-powered and the others electrical.

The cost of running the electrical irrigation pumps is slightly lower than last year, the Langenbergs said, but diesel fuel is about 33 percent higher.

In 1999 the cost was 70 cents per gallon. The Langenbergs said they paid as much as $1.01 earlier this summer.

The Langenbergs said each of the 13 pumps may run up to 52 total days because of the extended drought, or nearly 1,250 hours per pump.

A pivot that pumps 800 gallons of water a minute can take three days to apply one inch of water to a field. About 4,000 gallons of water are required to produce a bushel of corn.

Using 100 gallons of diesel fuel per pump, per day for 52 days, the cost could run $5,200 for each of the diesel pumps for the growing season. The Langenbergs figure that is an increase of $1,560 per pump.

"Who would have guessed that diesel fuel would have gone to $1 per gallon?'' Jon said. "And who would have guessed that corn would drop to $1.40 a bushel?'' Vicky added.

Jon Langenberg has farmed on his own since 1982 and the couple share in the fieldwork.

They farm 1,700 acres of irrigated corn and soybeans, plus 1,200 acres of dryland corn and soybeans and custom-work an additional 500 acres.

Jon Langenberg examined his corn last week and found variation within rows of irrigated corn and dryland ears about half the size of the irrigated ears with limited kernel development.

"The ears just aren't going to be there,'' he said. "You're at the mercy of Mother Nature, especially as to what your dryland yields will be.''

Langenberg said one of his irrigation motors had already logged 900 hours since April.

With corn and soybeans at a critical stage of development, pivots may need to run at least two more weeks, he said. Beans would probably benefit more from rain than corn at this point.

Pivot pumps and combines use diesel at the off-road farm price, which is exempt from state and federal highway taxes. but the diesel fuel needed to haul grain to the elevator and bins includes the 48.3 cent-per-gallon highway tax. That fuel currently costs about $1.40 per gallon.

Langenberg said he questions the future of the family farm.

"There's a lot of overhead,'' he said.



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