Ten Sleep, Wyoming
Covered wagons carrying hardy pioneers across the gently rolling plains to homestead land in the barren wilderness….
Surprisingly, not all the homesteading was done in the late 1800s. Thanks to the Desert Homestead Act of 1970, the parents of Casey Johnstone’s wife were able to “prove up” on their homestead near Ten Sleep, Wyoming, and later buy out several other homesteaders.
With average rainfall only in the high single digits, irrigation has always been a necessity for the operation’s success. Thankfully, they could tap an artesian well for some of their irrigation water requirements plus two 4,000-foot deep wells that each produce 1,000 gallons a minute.
Thirty years ago, Johnstone’s father-in-law, who was then farming the Buffalo Creek Farms’ land, began installing electric center-pivot sprinklers. Quite long in tooth now, the five systems remaining are highly subject to repeated break-downs and repairs.
So, six years ago Johnstone replaced one electric system with a hydrostatically powered T-L that irrigates 140 acres. Three years ago he installed a second T-L, and intends to replace all the remaining electric systems with T-Ls as soon as conditions allow.
His main crop is alfalfa. He feeds his lower quality hay to his 150 head of Angus-cross cows and their backgrounded calves during the winter and sells the high end of his hay on the open market. The average yield he harvests is five tons per acre annually. His other crop is malting barley that averages 80 bushels per acre.
Johnstone generally applies one-third inch of water per day during each three-day rotation on alfalfa. Thus in a typical irrigation season of 90 days he’ll apply 30 inches of water. However, since he can run his T-Ls when it’s as cold as 25*F, he sometimes irrigates right into October.
“Why did I start buying T-Ls?” he asks, then he quickly answers by emphasizing, “No more electric systems for me! It seems I’m always fighting with these darned electric pivots, and it’s so hard to hire somebody to come ‘way out here to fix them. It’s too easy to be down a day or two, or even as long as five days, just trying to figure out the problem.
“And, electricity is dangerous,” he adds. “You can’t see it, and if those 480 volts nab you, well, you’ve had it. Electricity and water just don’t mix.”
On the other hand, Johnstone says he likes his T-Ls for their hydraulic simplicity, which makes them “a heck of a lot different” from the electric systems he’s running.
He figures that when any repairs will be needed on the T-Ls that he can do it himself. As he points out, he originally put up the two T-L systems with the help of two other men, which saved him some money. He wouldn’t have even attempted to install an electric system.
“I need center-pivots that are dependable,” he stresses with a glance at the vast, sagebrush-covered, BLM areas surrounding his farmground’s pivot circles. “That’s why I like the hydraulics of the T-Ls; if you want to keep them running, get T-Ls.”
Whether it’s due to the continuous movement of the T-Ls or other factors, Johnstone’s hay harvest records indicate a 20 percent higher yield of alfalfa under a T-L compared to a similar field running an electric unit.
Also, Casey observes that “Stopping and starting all the time makes a lot of difference in the amount of wear and tear on a sprinkler.”
Every center pivot sprinkler makes tracks, which, depending on the soil type, can become ruts that guarantee a bouncy tractor or pickup truck ride that is hard on equipment, plus a too deep rut can also cause a tower to get stuck.
Johnstone has solved this problem by filling the wheel tracks of his sprinklers with gravel and then farming the land in circles rather than straight rows.
“This requires roughly 700 cubic yards of gravel for each pivot.” he says. “Yes, that’s a lot of gravel. But, my fields are so nice to drive across now and there’s no danger anymore of a tower getting stuck.”
Twenty-five years ago, Dallas Larsen had two good experiences: His son Lex was born and he installed his first center pivot system, a T-L.
Now Lex is in charge of their operation near Scottsbluff, Nebraska. And, the T-L is still going around doing its job of irrigating with little or no sign of its “maturity”.
There are 400 acres of corn grown mostly for silage and 200 acres of alfalfa hay on the place. Two T-Ls, with a third being installed this year, and flood irrigation share the watering duties. Two feedlots provide a 10,000 head capacity that’s turned twice annually.
Not too far away at Lusk, Wyoming, the Larsen’s run a 600 cow beef herd. Irrigation there is via two pivots on corn, three pivots on grass, and eight pivots on alfalfa hay. The mode of tillage is moving more and more from conventional to minimum-till.
At both locations rye is drilled into the stalk fields after the corn is harvested for silage. This provides both winter cover and excellent grazing for stocker cattle.
“That first T-L is as old as I am. It’s been pretty reliable. The way it’s working it’ll probably still be sprinkling when a son of mine takes over,” Larsen says with a smile.
The Larsen’s T-L dealer has kept precise records on their T-L irrigation systems. Over the years these figures show they’ve averaged spending less than $20 per tower annually for repairs and maintenance.
“When we do need to do something with a T-L, we can have an employee do most or all of what needs to be done. We don’t have to hire a $100 an hour electrician to come out here to fix it,” says Larsen.
“Also, with a T-L we have no worries about somebody getting electrocuted while working on the system. A little hydraulic oil on you is better than risking electrocution.”
And, if a problem with a T-L does develop, according to Larsen almost anyone who’s been farming knows something about hydraulics. As he notes, “Even somebody new to center pivots can dive right in and feel his way through without hurting himself.”
The main reason the first T-L system was installed and why more have been added over the years is to provide enough corn silage for the cattle operation without having to buy outside.
Larsen says that thanks to a combination of irrigation and advancements in corn hybrid yields the operation now produces more than enough corn silage for its needs on the same amount of ground.
The records show that their corn silage yields under sprinkler irrigation top out at 24 to 25 tons an acre. This is four to five tons an acre more than from the remaining flood-irrigated land.
“Center pivot irrigation doesn’t take nearly as much labor as flood irrigation,” Larsen continues. “It’s two hours a day for flood as opposed to just flipping a switch and checking your gauges on the pivot.”
There’s also a big advantage in efficiency, according to Larsen. Rather than seeing water running out the end of a field with flood irrigation, the center pivot is much more efficient in getting water into the soil without wastage.
“And,” he adds, ‘when it’s really hot, it’s nice to know that our center pivots can cover a crop three times faster that we could with flood irrigation.
“Maybe the best thing about sprinkler irrigation is that it helps your morale, because you don’t see your stalks shriveling up and dying.”
When a couple of his Brush, Colorado, neighbors commented that T-L center-pivot sprinklers were sometimes a little more expensive than other brands and asked Pat Draegert about his decision to install a 1,763-foot-long T-L system, his answer was short, and simple, “I can’t afford not to run a T-L!”
His answer was based on his experience with his hydrostatic T-L and past familiarity with four electric center pivots he didn’t own, dating back to 1978.
Draegert farms 400 acres of corn that annually averages between 165 to 185 bushels an acre and alfalfa producing five tons an acre. He also runs a 300-cow commercial beef herd in addition to operating a custom hay business. He farms some of his land conventional-till and some minimum-till.
The reason he installed the T-L system was his need to spread out his work load while still getting his fields irrigated properly, all this while using less of his increasingly regulated water supply.
For example, the land he still flood irrigates has half-mile runs. It takes 18 to 20 hours to run a set, putting on close to six or seven inches of water. On the other hand, he points out, “With my T-L I can control application to as little as a half-inch per circle with much more uniform distribution.”
And, as for the value of his investment dollar, putting in his T-L probably doubled the value of his property where it makes its circles, according to Draegert.
Before investing his bucks, he studied the various brands of center-pivot systems available. Then he toured the T-L manufacturing plant in Hastings, Nebraska.
“I became convinced that T-L builds its center-pivots with the user in mind–they’re user-friendly,” Draegert explains. “I believe the T-L is designed with a great deal of thought. A T-L is a good machine, and not one just put on the market to be a money trap.”
The feature he was most attracted by was the T-L center-pivot’s continuous movement.
“I prefer the hydro static drive system with its continuous movement over the stop-start of an electric unit,” Draegert says. “I do like the water pattern a lot better than what I’ve seen on competitive brands of sprinklers.
“Also, in my real heavy soil, my T-L doesn’t dig into the ground and make as deep a track as do the wheels of a stop-start system. I think anyone using an electric will have more gearbox wear and problems due to all the stopping and starting, too.”
While making his buying decision, he visited with users of competitive machines and became convinced that a T-L would require far less maintenance. A satisfied T-L owner told him that he got 20-some years of service before he had any significant repairs to his system.
“I also like not having that high electrical voltage around when working on my T-L,” Draegert says. “If I climb a tower to adjust a nozzle or whatever, I don’t have to be worried about electrical problems or possible electrocution.
“Speaking of electricity,” he adds, “by installing a T-L I didn’t have to pay for an electric power line.”
Rather than fertilizing or side-dressing separate field operations, Draegert is applying fertilizer during the growing season via chemigation through his T-L system. The T-L also provides the option of applying an insecticide if the situation requires.
“I’ve had from ‘really good’ to ‘exceptional’ service from my T-L dealer, too,” he comments. “All in all, T-L makes a good machine.”