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McKenzie County: North Dakota Farm Sees 'Tremendous' Gains with NRCS Irrigation Aid, Advice

Working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to update their irrigation “improved our farm tremendously,” says Vickie Schilling, of Cartwright, N.D.

A pivot applies irrigation water. (Photo: NRCS)

The family  increased their crop yields, cut the amount of water used, reduced labor costs and made it easier to run their farm and an oil field business at the same time.

Vickie farms with her husband, Rob, and sons, Tyler and Trent. The family grows sugar beets, corn and alfalfa. They also have an oil field welding business.

The land that the Schillings farm in North Dakota has been flood irrigated for decades. It lies along the Yellowstone River southeast of Cartwright near the North Dakota-Montana border

In the fall of 2020, they converted three fields to pivot irrigation. In the spring of 2022, they installed a linear irrigator in a fourth field. A linear machine travels back and forth across a field rather than around a central point like a pivot.

The flood irrigation that was installed in the 1960s still worked, but required a lot of hand labor to operate, Vickie says. The siphon tubes that transfer water from the irrigation canal to the field furrows had be moved manually.

“Rob and I are getting older,” Vickie says, and it was getting harder to do the physical work. Trent and Tyler have always helped, but they are plenty busy away from the farm now with the oil field welding business.

Also, with flood irrigation it was difficult to apply the right amount of water. That’s especially important when trying to germinate sugar beet seeds and water the seedlings. It was easy to wash the seeds out of the row or drown the seedlings with too much water.

Flood irrigation generally uses more water during a growing season than sprinkler irrigation, too. To flood a field, enough water must be applied between the rows so that it runs from one end of the field to the other. Sprinklers apply water directly on top of the row.

“Drought is always something we are concerned about. It affects how much water is in the river,” Tyler says. “We are always trying to conserve water. We don’t want to waste anything.”

The Schillings can monitor their sprinklers and turn them off and on remotely from their computers or cell phones.

Their new irrigation system includes automated soil moisture sensors. The solar powered sensors continuously measure the moisture in the soil from the surface to as much as 10 feet deep. The sensors transmit the readings to a cloud-based platform where the Schillings can access it remotely using an app on their smart phones and computer. A software program factors in the soil type, current weather conditions, the weather forecast and the crop’s growth stage and expected water use to produce recommendations on where to turn on and off the sprinklers and how much water to apply.

Water flow sensors on the sprinklers track water use. Global Positioning System technology on the machines allow the Schillings to track where the irrigators are in the fields. Sensors monitor the irrigators for signs of trouble and send the Schillings text alerts when something goes wrong.

The cloud-based platform gives the Schillings the flexibility to interact and control their irrigation wherever they are 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The Schillings received an Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) grant from NRCS to help cover some of the costs of converting their systems. NRCS provided technical assistance as well.

pivot, irrigation
One of the Schillings' new pivots stands ready to irrigate sugar beets (Photo: Nicole Darrington, NRCS)

“This new system will increase their irrigation water use efficiency by saving more water from evaporation, deep percolation and runoff while also minimizing erosion,” says Nicole Darrington, NRCS district conservationist, Watford City, N.D. “It will also help minimize the nutrients and pesticides transported from surface water. Also, by getting a sprinkler cost-shared, the irrigation water management is where we get to work very closely with the producer in teaching them about timing, distribution and regulating their irrigation water,”

The irrigation project was the first time the Schillings worked with the North Dakota NRCS.

“We had a very good experience,” Vickie says. “Nicole helped me fill out an EQIP application for cost-sharing and wrote a conservation plan for us. It came to together quickly and easily. She was wonderful to work with.”





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Media contact:

Lon Tonneson
for the Natural Resources Conservation Service - North Dakota