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Irrigation perceptions must change for efficiency drive There wasn’t the technology available in the 1960s to make solid set sprinkler irrigation successful, however that has all changed with the systems available today.

A pioneer of drip and sprinkler irrigation systems is trying to change perceptions in the industry ahead of abstraction license reform. Dominic Kilburn writes. Anthony Hopkins is a man on a mission. As a farmer, an irrigation equipment supplier and as chairman of the UK Irrigation Association (UKIA), he is adamant that reform of the irrigation industry in the UK is necessary if farmers are to achieve greater efficiency in terms of crop production, while protecting soils and conforming to the rafts of legislation coming their way over the next decade. He says that perceptions must change in terms of how water is applied to crops. For too long now the infiltration rate of the soils and the rate at which water has been applied has been out of balance, and soils have literally been saturated. “My take on the new licensing regime is that farmers are being pushed towards more efficient irrigation systems,” says Mr Hopkins, who is managing director of North Lincolnshire-based Wroot Water. “It’s all being driven by the threat

of legislation and the desire to protect soils in the drive for farms to become ever more productive,” he adds.

Pioneering As a supplier, Mr Hopkins could be accused of bias when it comes to irrigation systems – but his family’s farming business was one of the pioneers of sprinkler irrigation back in the 1960s. “Early irrigation was done by sprinklers which had to be moved every 2–3hrs having applied between 12–20mm of water. This improved productivity in a dry year and, in the late ‘60s up to the mid-‘70s, labour on farms was not particularly expensive and a lot more manual than today. “So even though abstraction licences started to come in for the first time in 1963, we had a situation of plentiful water for irrigation, it was being used efficiently and everyone was happy, however there were not as many irrigators then as there are


today,” explains Mr Hopkins. Drought in 1975 and 1976, he says, was a turning point as hose reels arrived on farms and were operated at up to 10 bar pressure. “We had only been used to running sprinklers at 4 bar max, and with the extra pressure we needed a bigger tractor,” he comments. “We could move a hose reel around the farm quicker, do more acres, put more water on the crops and achieve better results on some soil types. However on our black peat soils it is difficult to get good infiltration and when we applied 25mm of water and then went through spraying for blight, we’d end up with very deep ruts in the field. “That said, in 1976 with potatoes at £300/t, we made money that year and farming was good,” he adds. With “ripples of legislation” approaching in the ‘80s and ‘90s, followed by water volume restrictions being served, as well as continuing problems with soil infiltration on his farm, Mr Hopkins looked for an alternative system. “It prompted us to go down the drip system route, which meant another big change as we were geared up with high flow pressure pumps,” he explains. “So we slowed down the pump to reduce the pressure and made the areas of drip irrigation match the same volume of water/hr as the hose reel.” At the same time, Mr Hopkins says that he completed a Nuffield Scholarship on water management in agriculture, travelling extensively as part of his research. “I travelled

to Israel and several other countries where labour cost was generally not an issue, and realised that if drip irrigation in the UK was to be successful, it had to be automated.” In 2000, the company also started selling solid set sprinkler systems which completed the full circle from their initial use on the farm back in the early 1960s, says Mr Hopkins. “We simply didn’t have the kit to do this properly 50 years ago but modern technology has allowed us to go back to a system that works. “Putting all this into practice on our own farm is what has been key to making drip and sprinkler irrigation operate successfully, and that’s how Wroot Water started,” he adds.

Set up Today, in potato crops, the company’s drip irrigation hose or tape is laid on top of ridges and remains there for the duration of the crop. For hard hose systems emitters are spaced at 30cm, each delivering 0.6-litres/hr, while for tape, emitters are spaced at 20cm – delivering 1.25-litres/hr per linear metre. When tape is buried, efficiency is increased as the area wetted after 24hrs is 40 per cent larger, points out Mr Hopkins. “Not many people want to get off the tractor these days however once a drip irrigation or sprinkler system is set up, it’s done for the season, but the initial cost and the layout puts people off,” he continues. “Over a 10-year period, the cost of a sprinkler or drip irrigation system compared with a hose reel is very similar, however that’s just the cost. From our experience we would estimate a 25–40 per cent saving in water volume over the course of a season and a similar percentage continued over...


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