Tim and Sherlyn Nikkel, Inman, were recognized with the 2016 Bankers Award for water conservation at the McPherson County Soil Conservation Annual Banquet and Meeting, Jan. 23.

Tim Nikkel operates a grain farm northeast of Inman where he grows wheat, corn and soybeans. His experience with irrigation is life-long. His grandfather, Abe Nikkel, began irrigating in the late 1960s to early 1970s when farmers in the neighborhood realized the water potential that was underneath their feet in the Equus Beds. His father, LaVerne Nikkel, continued irrigating. Like most farmers, Tim Nickel grew up with flood irrigation, eventually changing to pivot systems on some of his irrigated land. Three years ago, he installed subsurface drip irrigation on the field for which he is being recognized.

It’s a move that has been nothing but positive, he said.

“I’m extremely happy,” Tim Nikkel said. “This is the most fun irrigating I’ve had in my life.”

The 40-acre field he converted to subsurface from flood had been problematic for efficient use of water. The field borders on the Blaze Fork and the low, flat ground is prone to flooding, and it was difficult to get the water through the furrows. When the ground is saturated with irrigation water and then receives a big rain, the crop is starved for oxygen. The field shares a water well with a field farmed by LaVerne Nikkel with a pivot system. Water was piped one direction across the field to the pivot and in the opposite direction to the flood field. Managing the water so the pivot and the flood systems both had enough water at the most beneficial times often meant coordinating what was planted each year. For instance, it was difficult if both fields were planted to corn and had maximum water demands at the same time. Managing the tail water on the flood field also posed some problems, Nikkel said.

Tim Nikkel considered a pivot system, but the configuration of the field seemed to be better suited to subsurface system. Funding through the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program made the expensive conversion more affordable.

“I’m thankful that (NRCS) cares about our practices and helps with the costs,” he said.

Tim Nikkel has changed his farming practices over the last five to seven years to become more conservation friendly, moving from full tillage to minimum till and strip till on much of his ground. Strip till works well with subsurface irrigation, especially since fertilizer and other chemical can be put on through the subsurface pipe, without disturbing the surface residue. He applies the water in three zones of 13.3 acres each. Water rotates between the zones and is controlled through a computer system to ensure that water is put on equally in each zone.

The benefits of the subsurface system have been many. Because water is put on underground, rather than on the surface, there is no evaporation or runoff. When it does rain, there is a dry zone above the irrigation zone allowing water to soak in rather than run off. According to NRCS records, the Nikkels are experiencing an 8.8 acre feet per year savings in water, which is significant and represents a 92 percent efficiency use of the water.

“The potential water savings was a big factor in the decision to go with the subsurface. We don’t want to end up like the Ogallala,” Tim Nikkel said.

The more efficient watering has resulted in record yields for that particular field in all three crops he has grown since the system was put in. He believes the subsurface irrigation has improved the yield potential of the ground. And, it allows both his father’s pivot irrigated field and his field to be watered at the same time.

But there is more to subsurface than water efficiency and higher yields. It also provides a benefit in time management. Tim Nikkel noted that time is no longer spent on furrowing or daily changing of gates when irrigating. There is a learning curve to learning a new system, but he feels the benefits are worth it. His experience with subsurface drip irrigation has been so positive he is hoping to convert more of his irrigated ground to the system.

“It just irrigates so nice and takes much less time to manage,” he said.

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