OMAHA (DTN) -- Several large storms damaged thousands of center pivot irrigation systems in several different storms during the first half of the growing season in 2022 across the Western Corn Belt. This uncooperative weather, on top of lingering supply chain issues from the COVID-19 pandemic and labor shortage issues in the industry, combined to slow down the delivery and assembling of center pivot irrigation systems.
While some challenges remain, center pivot manufacturers hope the 2023 growing season is less eventful than in 2022. The wild card remains volatile weather events.
STORMS DAMAGE CENTER PIVOTS
The issue began with three large thunderstorms which damaged center pivots across several states. Destructive windstorms hit in April, May and June across the Western Corn Belt in 2022.
The first one covered an area of south-central Nebraska, while the second one was a much larger storm, stretching from Ogalala, Nebraska, northeast to western Minnesota (https://www.dtnpf.com/…). The last one in June followed Interstate 80 from central to east-central Nebraska (https://www.dtnpf.com/…).
These storms damaged a significant amount of center pivots, according to Brad Dunbar, regional manager for Lindsay Corporation, an Omaha-based center pivot manufacturer. The bigger storm in May covered parts of Nebraska and South Dakota into northwest Iowa and western Minnesota.
"Usually, we have some pockets of stress with maybe a couple hundred damaged machines but that monster derecho damaged thousands of center pivots from Nebraska to Minnesota," Dunbar told DTN.
The result for farmers in these areas was there was a slower response time for crews to get out to fix and replace their center pivot irrigation systems. Some farmers vented on social media as the dry growing season grew drier with each passing week.
Center pivot manufacturers plan for storm damages and damaged machines but multiple storms of this size are extremely difficult to plan for, said Josh Dixon, president of irrigation for Valley Irrigation.
The company works to stock its 750 dealers worldwide strategically, basing forecasts on historical impact on a rolling 20-year storm history. Unfortunately, the sheer volume and devastation of storms in 2022 overwhelmed the entire industry, as these storms were far more destructive than in previous years, he said.
"All manufacturers struggled to improve our service levels during this time," Dixon said. "Couple this with the impact on the supply chain from COVID-19 and it made for a large mountain to climb," Dixon said.
The supply chain issues complicated the irrigation equipment situation.
Dixon cited the storm which the Gulf Coast region saw, which led to a nationwide plastic shortage. This in turn led to the company having some issues with sourcing plastic parts, he added.
"For two years there, it really became a pursuit of getting the right parts for the orders we had; it was a very challenging time," Dixon said.
Another issue that plagued center pivot irrigation companies during the last growing season was the lack of labor and available crews to repair and replace center pivots.
Dunbar said Lindsay's dealer network of 450 dealers worldwide worked together well to attempt to get the damaged pivots going. Some dealers have their own crews, while other dealerships contract with outside crews.
As with many other industries, center pivot dealers also struggle with having enough workers to operate efficiently during events like this, he said. During normal times, dealers do a good job covering their customers' needs, but this event put stress on everyone as they approached an abnormally dry start to the irrigation season after the May storms, Dunbar explained.
"They are our front line who work directly with growers," Dunbar said. "They did a fantastic job working through a difficult time."
OUTLOOK APPEARS BETTER
The outlook for center pivot manufacturers in 2023 is positive -- barring large storms damaging many machines once again.
Dixon believes the industry has learned from last year's challenges and will be better able to handle these types of situations in the future. Repair and assembling of center pivot irrigation systems have returned to normal, Dunbar said.
There are some silver linings to last year's delay of irrigation parts. For instance, Dixon said his company has continued to move away from single-sourced parts and now has multiple suppliers.
"We have to balance availability of parts purchases versus cost structure," Dixon said. "Cost position will be very important going forward."
The Valley Irrigation board and management team continue to assess the situation with parts sourcing, disaster recovery plans and risk mitigation policies, he said.
Dunbar said while the industry still has its challenges, they are sitting in a much better spot than 12 months ago. Supply chain issues seem to be better and they haven't seen that high volume demand pushing in on the system all at once like last year, he said.
Continuing to operate during major weather events is an issue the industry will need to monitor in the future. It does seem the frequency of these damaging storms is increasing and there is pressure on irrigation companies, he said.
"I think we are well-attuned to these weather issues," Dunbar said.
EL NINO RETURNS
After several years in a La Nina weather system, an El Nino weather pattern will emerge this year, according to DTN Ag Meteorologist John Baranick. He recently wrote about El Nino in the DTN Ag Weather Forum blog at https://www.dtnpf.com/….
The Western Corn Belt should return to a normal weather pattern for summer. That means a regular occurrence of thunderstorms and a normal risk of severe weather, Baranick said.
As for predicting severe thunderstorms, which can damage a center pivot irrigation system, it is impossible for meteorologists to predict when and where damaging storms will be, he noted. "It's like saying we expect a certain number of hurricanes a given season, but we couldn't tell you when, where, or how strong those may be."
Irrigation equipment companies are going to have to pay attention to the weather, especially if their resources are stretched thin, Baranick said.
Russ Quinn can be reached at Russ.Quinn@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @RussQuinnDTN
(c) Copyright 2023 DTN, LLC. All rights reserved.