Choosing an irrigation system for small acreages depends on field and goalsWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Worland – “When we think about how we will irrigate our small acreage, it really should be tailored to the specific location and crop and designed in a way that is going to compliment our efforts. We want to maximize yield. We also want to think about the bottom line,” remarked University of Wyoming Extension Educator Caleb Carter at WESTI Ag Days in Worland on Feb. 20.
Efficiency is a common consideration when producers look at irrigation, but Carter suggested looking beyond the field when deciding which type of system is best for a specific location.
“I spent a couple of summers doing research in Powell, and lots of people there have really shallow, 12- or 15-foot-deep wells they use to water their lawns. Those wells are dry until the irrigation water starts running, and then they all fill up,” Carter described as an example of hydrology related to irrigation systems.
He also described examples near Laramie where an endangered Wyoming toad resides, thanks to habitat created by flood irrigation practices.
“When we talk about efficiency, people throw out numbers, but they don’t always account for where that water is going, and it may be going to some other beneficial uses,” he said.
Labor and land
Labor is another important consideration when choosing an irrigation system because there are many different options.
“Do we want a system where we can go to our computer and say, boom, irrigate? Or do we want to go out there and move dams and flood pastures? The technology exists to do either one of those,” remarked Carter.
Various systems also come with different costs and different levels of precision in water application. Finances and production goals are also important considerations when deciding how to irrigate a field.
Topography also impacts which kind of system is best suited to a specific area. For example, flood irrigation or other surface irrigation scenarios require a relatively flat field because water doesn’t flow uphill.
“It’s also important to think about our soil type when we are choosing an irrigation method. If we have a really heavy soil that can hold a lot of water but has a slow infiltration rate, a flood or surface irrigation system is going to be more effective than a sprinkler,” he commented.
In one case, Carter worked with producers who switched from a flood irrigation system to a pivot in their alfalfa field, but yields declined.
“They had really good clay-loam soil. It held a lot of water, and the flood irrigation was able to fill that soil profile. When they switched to the pivot, they weren’t able to apply enough water to fill that root zone,” Carter explained.
Good irrigation requires the soil to both absorb water and disperse it through the soil profile. If soils have a high infiltration rate, water from flood irrigation systems may flow through too quickly, moving below the root zone instead of benefiting the crop.
Producers should also be familiar with the water rights associated with their property and usage.
“We sometimes get people buying property that maybe are not familiar with Wyoming water law or their responsibilities, but if we have property and it has water rights, we are responsible for the maintenance of the ditches and the infrastructure that delivers the water to that property,” Carter stated.
This may involve burning ditches, removing weeds or clearing debris to ensure that water flow is not inhibited.
“We are also responsible for head gates and things that impact how water is delivered to our field or property,” he added. “We need to make sure we’re staying up on our responsibilities.”
Systems vary from surface irrigation systems, such as furrow, flood or gated pipe, to sprinkler systems, such as hand lines, wheel lines, K-lines and Big Guns. Drip irrigation systems can also be installed, depending on the goals of the producer.
“Hand lines are nice, but they are a lot of labor,” Carter commented. “We can drag K-lines with our four-wheeler or tractor to move them around the field.”
Big Guns are popular with producers who want precision in water application over their pastures, and wheel lines or side rolls may be more appropriate for crops such as alfalfa that shouldn’t be trampled on as they grow.
“Drip irrigation has the potential for the least amount of labor, but it is the most expensive as well,” he continued. “A lot of the cost has to do with how far away the water source is, as well as the shape of the field.”
An oddly shaped field with a lot of topography will present more challenges and costs for even water distribution over the whole crop.
Costs and maintenance
“Costs also have to do with the level of automation. We can have a drip irrigation system where we go out manually and turn the water on in each zone, or we can also have a system where we take our smartphone out of our pocket, say how much we want to irrigate in each zone and turn it on,” he explained.
No matter which type of irrigation is best for a certain field, Carter emphasized using proper management once the system is installed.
“We can have the best, most wonderful system, but if we’re not monitoring, maintaining and operating it in the best manner for that system, it’s not going to do us any good or serve us in the way we designated it,” he said.
Water Development continues toward working on revised basin plansWritten by Saige Albert
Buffalo – In 1973, the state of Wyoming embarked on writing a statewide water plan. A number of years later in 1997, a group of people got together and decided an update was needed, so they went to the Wyoming Legislature to look at how the plan might apply across the state.
“The Legislature told them to go ahead,” said Jodee Pring, project manager at the Wyoming Water Development Office (WWDO). “In 1999, they started with two plans – the Green River Basin and Bear River Basin plans were completed.”
After a number of people across the state complimented the work, water basin planning efforts were expanded across every basin in the state.
“In 2002, the Snake/Salt and Wind/Bighorn River Basin Plans were completed. Also in 2002, the Powder/Tongue and Northeast plans were completed,” Pring continued. “In 2006, the Platte was completed.”
Then, in 2007, the WWDO completed its first framework basin plan.
“We made a deal with the legislature that we would update these plans every few years,” Pring said. “We started these updates in 2010.”
Updates were conducted on the Green, Wind/Bighorn, Bear and Snake/Salt River Basin Plans from 2010-14, and the Platte River Basin Plan will be complete in 2016.
Powder and Tongue Rivers
“That brings us to the Powder/Tongue and Northeast plans,” Pring commented, noting that the agency was awaiting the resolution of Montana v. Wyoming and North Dakota prior to beginning planning in the Powder/Tongue River Basin. “We are comfortable with where that case stands, and we are starting our update on the Powder/Tongue and Northeast River Basin Plans.”
The Wyoming Legislature appropriated $375,000 to complete the update, and an additional $275,00 has been allotted to do a groundwater study.
“The surface and groundwater studies will be done at the same time. The Wyoming State Geological Survey and the U.S. Geological Survey will complete the groundwater portion of the study,” Pring explained. “They have done the groundwater plans for our other river basins, as well.”
She further noted that a plethora of information on the planning efforts is available at the WWDO website.
Pring noted that the Powder/Tongue and Northeast River Basin Plan Update does have some additional aspects that have not occurred with other plans.
“We are going to do the same things we have done with many others,” she explained. “We will update demand projections and current basin water use.”
She continued, “We are going to do a couple of things as part of a separate spreadsheet model update.”
For example, WWDO will analyze the Hydrologic Unit Code-12 (HUC) hydrology and do an annual and peak runoff estimate for each of those watersheds. HUC-12 is a sequence of numbers used to identify a hydrological feature.
“This analysis will give us an idea of the water available for potential reservoirs,” Pring mentioned. “As most people already know, the Governor’s Water Strategy hopes to build 10 reservoirs in 10 years, and we are concentrating on also looking to see if we might be able to build reservoirs in these watersheds.”
Consultants will also take a closer look at environmental use and recreational use and how those uses fit with traditional uses, as well.
“We know there is a lot of competition between those uses, but often they are complimentary,” Pring said. “We want to see how those uses play out.”
Finally, Pring mentions that an additional task to be performed will be called the Watershed Fire Information task.
“This was prompted from Director Harry LaBonde’s involvement with the Governor’s Task Force on Forest Health,” Pring said. “They issued a report and recommended developing cross-jurisdictional watershed protection plans for municipalities relying heavily on forested watersheds.”
After catastrophic fires in watersheds providing Denver, Colo.’s water, LaBonde suggested that forested watersheds should be analyzed for their vulnerability to fire.
Interviews for a consultant to head up the project occurred at the beginning of May. After selecting a consultant, a series of meetings will be held to gather stakeholder information.
“In September and October will have three open houses across the basin,” Pring explained. “We will send notices and advertise those open houses.”
Throughout the process, six additional meetings will be held to ensure the consultant is on the right track.
“We will also have three more open houses and ask for involvement before the plan goes into final draft,” she said. “Stay tuned for more information.”
Pring spoke at the Powder/Tongue River Basin Advisory Group meeting on April 21.
Forage crops may provide a viable option for farmers with irrigationWritten by Gayle Smith
With corn prices taking a tumble, some ranchers with cattle and irrigated land are taking a look at planting a forage crop this year.
“It is something producers who have both cattle and farm ground are looking at because they are in a situation where they probably don’t have enough pasture for the cattle they have,” according to Aaron Berger, University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension specialist. “It is a way they may be able to hold their cattle herd together.”
Earlier in the week, December corn futures were down to $5.50.
“The price is getting to the point that with the cost of production, there is not a lot of margin left,” Berger said. “Forage will be in short supply this year, and right now, any decent hay will cost between $175 and $225 a ton.”
“It is possible to grow four to five tons of annual forage for a hay crop on a pivot, with a combination of spring cool season and warm season annuals. It is almost equivalent, gross-wise, to what a producer could get growing a corn crop,” he noted.
However, because each individual operation is different, Berger encourages producers to put a pencil to the numbers and consider input costs before making a final decision.
Important factors to consider are how much water is available, when it will be available, when the forage will be needed and how much management the producer is willing to provide from a grazing standpoint. What class of livestock will be grazed, which dictates how much the forage is allowed to grow, and how it is grazed are another important consideration, he said. Producers will also need to look at their fertilizer program, what equipment they have available and whether the forage will be grazed or harvested and fed someplace else.
Berger said producers will want to plan ahead because seed may be in short supply.
“Because of the drought last year and the feed shortage this year, a lot of producers are considering planting annual forages,” Berger said. “If you are planning to plant annual forages this year, I would recommend locking down some seed soon, because there will be a shortage.”
Although annual forages will harvest more tonnage on irrigated land, dryland producers may also want to consider this option, if they think there may be adequate rainfall.
“They could consider planting some spring annual forages, like triticale, oats or barley. If we get some rain, they may get a crop,” he said. “In early June, they could plant summer annuals like sudangrass, foxtail millet or teff, but you need to have some soil moisture and receive some rain for it to grow.”
Berger said summer annuals need 2.5 to 3.5 inches of moisture per ton of forage produced. Spring crops need 4.5 to 5.5 inches to produce a ton of forage.
“Summer annuals are more efficient, but they have a higher evapo-transpiration rate than spring crops during the summer,” Berger explained. “In our region, we get most of our moisture in April, May and June. I would try and reduce risk by spreading out the planting of the crops over a few months to try and get some use out of any moisture we might receive.”
To maximize the amount of forage harvested per acre, Berger said producers should consider windrow grazing, baling or chopping the forage for silage when it is in the boot or head stage. He urged producers to avoid turning livestock into the field to graze, unless the crop has been windrowed first.
“Grazing is only 50 percent as efficient as windrow grazing, or putting the crop up as hay or silage,” he said.
Once the crop has been utilized, producers may want to consider reworking the ground and planting another crop.
“Producers could plant something like oats or spring triticale now, take it off by grazing or haying by the end of June or first of July, and then come back and plant something like sorghum sudan or sudangrass that could be grazed in August or September,” Berger said. “They will just have to have a place for the cattle to go while the newly planted crop is growing.”
Berger recommends producers put a plan together of how they will plant and utilize the forage.
“I would recommend putting together a chain, so you have forage available from late spring through fall, depending upon what your goals are and what you have available,” he said.
Inside pivots Pivot irrigation offers options for farmersWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Low labor and maintenance, convenience, flexibility and easy operation are potential advantages of a pivot system over flood or furrow irrigation, according to Jeremiah Vardiman, UW Extension educator.
“The biggest thing that jumps out at me is reduced irrigation time – only six to seven hours per acre,” he comments. “This isn’t about man hours. It is the hours of water going across our field.”
Different power supply options, drive systems, nozzles, tires and control panels make pivot systems customizable for producers’ various needs.
“Power supply is going to pertain to where we are located with our pivot,” notes Vardiman.
Systems can run from electricity, gas or diesel engines – or even renewable energy, such as hydroelectric sources, in some cases.
“There may be a huge upfront cost to install a renewable resource, but over the long term, it is going to pay for itself,” he comments.
Diesel, propane or natural gas motors incur expenses through fuel costs, and electricity expenses depend on the system’s distance from a power pole.
“Electric also has peak load times,” adds Vardiman. “When we are running a pivot at those peak times, we can be charged three times the normal amount.”
If the pivot is located at a power pole and producers can shut the systems down during peak hours, electricity is likely more cost effective than a fuel-powered source.
“Also, for producers close to a methane well, this energy source is another option,” he adds.
Producers can also consider different drive systems, such as electric or hydraulic oil systems.
“With electrical, we will have an electric motor on each tower and a gearbox on every tire,” he explains.
A hydraulic system involves a hydraulic oil reserve that is pumped down the entire pivot with a flow regulator and a hydraulic motor and gear at each wheel.
“The biggest difference is how the pivot moves in the field,” comments Vardiman.
An electric pivot moves tower by tower as trigger plates are initiated while hydraulic systems move in one continuous motion.
“One is not necessarily better than the other, but we should be aware that there is a difference in how they drive,” he continues.
Nozzles are another component for producers to consider when looking into pivot systems.
“What we are growing dictates our nozzles, and there are all kinds of functions out there,” says Vardiman.
One example is called a double-ended sock or hose.
“It drags along the ground and basically does flood irrigation in the field,” he explains.
Different kinds of sprinkler heads shoot a steady stream of water or break the flow into small droplets.
“We can also have an in-canopy sprinkler or an above-canopy sprinkler,” he adds.
In Wyoming, a bubbler may be an appropriate nozzle, since it produces large water drops that have a better chance of making it the ground before they evaporate or blow away.
“It depends on what we are managing for, what crop we are growing and what our soil conditions are,” Vardiman describes.
Tires are also a key piece of equipment to consider.
“Just like anything else that has tires, there are many different options,” comments Vardiman.
Rubber tires come in different tread patterns and different sizes, but poly-solid and steel wheels are available as well.
“There is a huge difference in cost,” he notes. “It depends on the size and the grade.”
Control panels are another variable in pivot systems, from very simple to much more complicated set-ups.
“Don’t be intimidated. Technology does have a learning curve, but like our cellphone or computer, the more we use it, the more we get accustomed to it and the easier it is to function,” Vardiman says.
GPS is one example of pivot technology that can be incorporated into the controls.
“GPS can keep our pivot straight as it moves around, and it can turn the pivot on and off when it gets specifically where we want it,” he notes.
This can be used to avoid fines for spraying county roads or highways.
“The other benefit of GPS is that it ties into chemigation and fertigation,” Vardiman says.
Herbicide, pesticide or fungicide solutions can be mixed into a nurse tank and pumped through the pivot, spreading over the field.
Bells and whistles
“The other thing for bells and whistles is our computer, tablet or smartphone,” adds Vardiman.
With a high-grade system, pivots can be controlled remotely, straight from a smartphone.
“This is totally different than when we are out changing parts for flood irrigation and opening and closing gates,” he explains.
Depending on the field and producer, systems can be designed for many different needs.
“It is site-specific. All of these center pivots, all of the options and all of the technology depend on our site, our location and what we are trying to accomplish,” he says.
Maintenance of pivots
When considering pivot installation, Jeremiah Vardiman with UW Extension notes that there are several management concerns to address.
“If we don’t have strong enough streams in our ditch or if we have a very mossy irrigation ditch, we can plug a sprinkler in a hurry,” he says.
He encourages producers to inspect their systems on a regular basis for leaks, blown gaskets or other problems, even if the system is being controlled remotely with a smartphone or computer.
“We need to keep our screens in good condition,” he comments.
Using algaecides at certain times of the year may also reduce blockages.
“One of the biggest concerns is digging trenches,” notes Vardiman. “Center pivots are really not that heavy until we load the system up with water.”
Tracks, polymer spray, boom-back attachments or mechanical gravel fill options are some of Vardiman’s suggestions to minimize tire ruts.
“We should do our due diligence and try to help ourselves out where you can,” he adds.
Initial installation costs can also be a concern for producers.
“The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has an agricultural management assistant program that offers assistance for up to 75 percent of the cost of installing conservation practices to those who qualify,” he explains.
Loans may also be available through Farm Service Agency and used equipment can often be found at a discount.
“Talk to equipment dealers,” says Vardiman. “Remember that this is a piece of equipment, and we need to do our upkeep on it.”
Jeremiah Vardiman spoke at Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days in Riverton on February 12.
Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at wylr.net.
Gravity works: Star Valley irrigators use gravity flow waterWritten by Saige Albert
“On my operation, I’ve got sprinklers, and part of them are gravity flow,” he explains. “Our irrigation district has about 5,000 acres in it, and the intake is from Cottonwood Creek.”
Because the irrigation intake sits about 1,500 feet above the irrigated land, Crook explains that pressure builds while the water is traveling to high enough levels to power sprinklers.
“The water is carried in pipes, and the pressure builds up to sprinkler pressure,” he explains. “The sprinklers also have pressure control valves, so it doesn’t get too high.”
In using gravity-powered sprinklers, producers are able to save money, since they aren’t paying to pump water from ditches or canals.
“There are several fairly large irrigation districts in the valley that use the gravity to power sprinklers.”
He adds that a number of smaller districts have similar systems.
“There is still some flood irrigating going on too, but it’s tricky when you use the canal,” Crook says, adding that some producers still pump water to power their sprinklers.
“The sprinkler system was changed over from flood irrigation to sprinkler systems in 1971,” says Crook of his operation. “We switched because of the efficiency and the increase in crop production.”
Garry notes that on his operation, since switching to sprinklers, he has nearly doubled production, as compared to flood irrigation.
“It covers more land, and we apply only what water we need to grow the crops,” he explains. “In flood irrigation, you can only cover part of the land, and the water sinks as it goes. Flood irrigation isn’t very efficient.”
Crook took over his family operation nearly 40 years ago. The land is part of an original homestead.
“I farmed for a living,” says Crook, adding that this year, he leased his farmland.
After going to school at the University of Wyoming, Crook worked in the defense industry for 12 years.
“We moved back to take over the ranch and the farm,” he explains. “We also made our living and raised a family here.”
Crook raised alfalfa, grass hay and barley, mentioning that the climate isn’t warm enough to grow corn or wheat. As far as crops that grow in the short growing season, they were fairly limited to hay, oats and barley.
“We planted the crops that work here, and we harvest only one and a half or two crops a year, instead of the three to four that can be done in warmer climates,” Crook says.
Through the years Crook notes that the equipment they use in their operation has also changed to increase the efficiency of farming.
“We started out with small bales,” he says of the alfalfa operation. “Before that, we had loose hay in stacks. Now we have large, round bales. It is a lot less labor intensive.”
“Most of the crops grown here are fed to beef cattle or exported out,” he notes.
Changes in Star Valley
Since moving to Star Valley, Crook has noticed some substantial changes in the valley.
“While we have been here, dairy operations have gone out of business,” he says. “Those were hard changes to work through.”
He also adds that price variation has been challenging.
“When prices were low, lots of companies went out of business, and that was a challenge,” he adds. “Now there is about one-tenth as many people in the dairy industry as there was 20 to 30 years ago.”
He says there were nearly 300 small dairies a number of years ago, while today only a handful operate in the valley.
“The dairy industry changed in general,” he says. “They went from small operations like here in the valley, to production systems where they have several thousand head of cattle per operation.”
Facilities in the dairy industry have also changed from flat barns to the milk houses and free stall barns that are seen today
He has also noticed that farm ground is being converted into subdivisions, a change that has occurred in the past 10 to 15 years.
“A lot of subdivisions have gone in, and retirees have moved into the valley,” Crook explains. “From an agricultural standpoint, land is broken into small ranchettes, so there aren’t as many operations as there used to be.”
He adds that people in the valley have income from other sources, rather than agricultural production.
“Things have changed quite a bit,” Crook notes.