Irrigation supply companies, an irrigator’s hero after the storm

Irrigation companies prioritize pivot repairs following storm damage to reduce potential yield loss. Watch for symptoms of storm damage to irrigation structures and reduce the likelihood of economic loss from damage as much as possible.

Lightning damage to electrical supplies, like this blown out meter socket, presents a need for immediate repair and the risk of downline damage of equipment. Photo by Lyndon Kelley, MSU Extension.

A good summary of the May 7, 2024 severe weather outbreak for southwest lower Michigan, northern Indiana and northwest Ohio, including photos and storm tracks, is available from the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Syracuse, Indiana, at May 7, 2024 Tornadoes & Severe Weather Summary. Winds in excess of 100 mph led to widespread property damage in many areas. The morning after the outbreak, I made the mistake of calling an irrigation repairman about a control panel upgrade we were looking for as part of a research project. He was very helpful but also informed me that his highest priority was looking into the 60 repairs that he needed to work on due to recent storm damage. It brought to my attention the importance of our irrigation suppliers and the irrigation repair technicians who work tirelessly to keep agriculture going. 

Skilled irrigation equipment repair people fall into three categories: 

  1. Electricians deal with the control mechanisms and the power for the unit. 
  2. Structural engineering technicians assemble, or weld engineered structures that the equipment depends on. 
  3. Sales and design staff commonly assess the damage, order replacement parts, file the insurance paperwork and prioritize the repairs. 

Their response to storm damage minimizes loss of crop yields due to structural irrigation damage and is a credit to the whole irrigation industry. The national offices and local equipment suppliers of each company inventory parts and complete spans for center pivot repairs. Rapid response trucking systems start to get equipment to the areas of need within days. Repair crews from other parts of the country are sometimes called in to help increase available trained labor force. 

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Photo by Lyndon Kelley, MSU Extension. 

Fellow irrigators seem to have an understanding or tolerance for their local dealers triaging storm damage and creating a priority list for the equipment to be repaired. A good example is found in the May 7 storm. St. Joseph County has the most irrigated acres under center pivot in Michigan; much of that is due to the seed corn industry. However, many of the seed corn production fields will not likely need significant irrigation water until June. Potatoes are also grown in St. Joseph County, and their most critical water use period occurs during tuber initiation, which often means that potatoes are heavily irrigated throughout May. To minimize potential crop damage from drought, dealerships will place a higher priority on repairing pivots on fields that are most at risk of drought damage during the time of repairs. In the case of the May 7 storm, repairing irrigation structures on potato acres is a higher priority than seed corn. 

Most center pivot irrigation spans that have toppled over are not recoverable. Modern center pivots use the pipe as the main structural component with bracing material called v-jacks below it to create a bridge section from 126 to 205 feet long. The most common span lengths are in the 180-foot range. Once toppled, the bracing angle irons commonly puncture through or fracture the pipe. Irrigation suppliers keep the common pipe spans on hand to make up the required lengths. 

Producers can try to minimize damage to pivots. Some people recommend trying to park or leave the pivot pointed into or away from the wind to minimize potential wind damage. However, the wind direction the storm will come from is not always predictable, and the intensity of the wind or rotation of the tornado may nullify or prevent the placement of the pivot parallel to the wind. The May 7 storm in St. Joseph County caused primarily wind damage. Producers may find more value in parking away from tree lines, as large branches and whole trees are likely to fall during windstorms, and they can just as easily damage a pivot. 

Tree damage is also commonly seen during the first pass of a pivot each spring, as the trees have added some length since the last growing season. Sometimes the additional length is enough to catch on to an end gun, which can be costly. Producers should be aware of tight spots next to tree lines and maintain trees to avoid damage as much as possible. 

Lightning damage is another risk to irrigation equipment and operators. Ideally, all electrical disconnects would be shut off prior to a major storm event to reduce damage to electrical equipment. After lightning events in the area, carefully inspect electrical disconnects and control panels for damage. Make sure the electrical power is OFF at primary disconnect next to the power company meter or your generator. Fully blown electrical boxes and control panels are easily identified but carbon residue from smaller flashes or electrical blasts can be a danger once re-electrified. Inspecting each disconnect box and control panel before re-energizing the system is safest for both operator and equipment. 

Having a good understanding and relationship with your electrician is important. In some cases, the electrician will want to be involved as soon as you identify an issue, others will have their client do basic identification of the problem including testing and replacing blown fuses. Having a contingency plan before there is a problem saves time, money, and makes good use of the talent you have available. 

Blown safety fuses can be harder to detect. Most control panels have a monitor on incoming power that may help to identify problems. Irrigation dealers often have training for clientele on basic safety and troubleshooting of center pivot irrigation system problems, a very valuable skill set for irrigation system operators. 

Warning: Always make the first contact with the electrical box or machine with the back of your hand, so if shocked your body response will be to jerk away instead of into the offending box. Always stand to the side and away from disconnect and control panel when lifting the handle to engage the electrical disconnect to minimize effects of any potential electrical blast. 

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Storm damage, like that of May 7, 2024, for tornadoes that crossed southwest Michigan presents a challenge for the irrigation industry for a quick replacement of multiple irrigation systems. It also serves as a reminder for all of us that adequate insurance and knowledge of how it will work in this time of disaster are important. Photos by Lyndon Kelley, MSU Extension. 

For most producers, center pivot irrigation equipment insurance coverage has become extremely important. If the last span and end-boom flip over, costs can easily range from $15-$20,000. The common 1,300-foot machines used in 160-acre fields will have replacement costs more than $80,000. Recent weather-related irrigation damage is a good reminder for all irrigators to make sure their irrigation equipment is adequately insured. Read and review your contract and make sure you understand what is (and is not) covered (including the types of weather responsible) and how your insurance company will pay for damage to irrigation equipment. This needs to be a continuing, regular effort. As operations expand, it’s easy to forget to list some of your newer irrigation additions, especially smaller units built from used parts. Most insurance companies are not likely to pay for equipment that was not listed. Finally, the value of irrigation equipment continues to rise with time, increasing replacement values, so also consider how your operational risk and insurance needs may change over time.  

Insurance coverage can help reduce equipment damage costs to the individual producer, but days without water cannot be replaced for the crop. Timely irrigation equipment repair by skilled people helps reduce drought stress and yield loss in vulnerable crops. 

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