Line-Pod Irrigation Helps Revive Western Nebraska Ranch
(Reprinted from the June 06 Volume of “The Stockman Grass Farmer” magazine)
OSKOSH. Neb: When Margaret Baker asked her husband, Stan, to take over the management of the family ranch in western Nebraska, that was a stretch. Stan wasn't a rancher or a cowboy. But his background as a former Denver policeman followed by twenty years as a stock broker and investment banker did give him the skills to understand the business part of the operation.
When his ranch neighbor, Steve Sun, suggested that Stan start reading the Stockman Grass Farmer to learn how to effectively operate the ranch, the outcome was positive. Picking ideas from the Stockman Grass Farmer led Stan to attend Dave Pratt's Ranching for Profit school. He studied marketing strategies and cattle handling with Bud Williams. When he read about irrigated pastures and their potential, he contacted me. Today, Stan is perfecting the ideas and skills he learned through these, and other contacts.
The addition of a line-pod irrigation system on 400 acres of “river ground” stretching for two and a half miles along the north side of the North Platte River near Oshkosh, Nebraska, has become an important upgrade that Stan and Margaret Baker have added to their third generation Ferrell Cattle Company’s ranch holdings.
This pasture, dotted with its unique sprinklers, along with two pivot irrigated fields being converted to grazed forage production plus 300 acres of additional sub-irrigated pasture makes up a grazing cell that has become the focal point of the 30,000 acre ranch. As of the writing of this article, the Bakers are grazing 700 cow/calf pairs and 400 seven-weight heifers on this cell. According to Stan. "What used to support the equivalent of 600 yearlings before the line-pods, now can easily maintain 2000 yearlings."
Consisting primarily of brome, wheatgrass, and forbs, this 400 acre pasture had been somewhat abused because of its close location to the handling facilities. Being near the river, the pasture had some sub-irrigation. It was capable of running about 400 steers for three months in the spring and early summer.
The installation of a series of line-pods dramatically increased steer numbers to 1200 head for four months and also produced a cutting of hay. The end result was that the increased production paid for the entire system in the first year.
With the help of Don Trott, of Alpha-Ag, Inc., Baker installed 35 lines consisting of 410 pods on 400 acres. The entire system is fed by one 900 gpm well that is also used to supply a nearby pivot. By designing the underground feeder line starting with 10 inch diameter pipe, and going down to eight inch, six inch, and finally four inch, each outlet pod has a water pressure of 51 psi whether the pod be 50 feet from the well or at the end of the last line.
Stan says that a good design element is essential to ensure even distribution of the water.
IRRIGATION STARTS IN APRIL
Stan starts to apply irrigation water around the first of April and applies 1.25 inches per application, every 15 days. Beginning May 15, he increases the rate to 1.25 inches every 10 days. In the event of one inch rain, the system is turned off for a short time. During July and August, the system is shut down, and the cattle are moved to the north ranch to graze native, warm-season pastures. Then, if sufficient ungrazed residue is present, the paddocks are cut for hay or haylage.
As the days begin to cool in late August, the system is restarted and is grazed until late September.
Stan points out that this is a supplemental water system. It supplements the available ground water and timely rains. He plans to apply 8-9 inches per season. Stan believes that the line-pod system is more water efficient than center pivots. He has two nearby pivots that he plans to convert to pods in the near future. In establishing an irrigation system with the plan to utilize it less than maximum capacity, Stan said that he just wants to make the pasture "drought proof."
$300/ACRE LAND NOW NETS $240/YEAR
Stan hires two high school boys who spend about three hours each day in moving the pod lines.
Last year he spent $6000 in labor to move the pods, utility costs were $4000, and he spent another $1000 on miscellaneous expenses. Stan estimates that his land valued at $300 an acre (before irrigation installation) now nets a profit (above variable costs) of $240 in grazing and hay production returns per year. This impressive return is due to the fact that grass prduction has tripled under irrigation compared to the land's pre-irrigation production capabilities.
Unique Pasture Irrigation Systems
The design for a line-pod system is unique to each situation. The average line is 10 to 13 pods spaced 40 to 50 feet apart. Stan's pod lines range from 380 to 630 feet in length. Each pod is fitted with a sprinkler nozzle that will cover a 50-60 foot diameter space. The nozzles are sized from one to five gallons per minute, depending on the amount of water needed in a given time period. On Baker's system, each pod delivers about two gallons per minute.
By moving the lines in a zig-zag motion, and moving once a day, he can water an 11 acre patch every 10 days. If the pasture needs water every five days, the lines can be moved twice daily or additional lines could be added as long as water avilibility were sufficient. More frequent moves increases the labor cost involved which would need to be considered.
Stan's description of line-pod irrigation might sum it up best. He says simply, "It is a garden hose on steroids." The 400 acres are divided into twelve, 34-acre paddocks. There are three lines in each paddock. Given the gentle application rate, there is no standing water since applied water is given sufficient time to soak deep into the soil profile where it's most adventageous.
Applying 1.25 inches of water over a 24 hour period is an application rate of 0.05 inches per hour. Most normal soils can absorb around a half inch per hour. Because of this very slow rate of application, it is not necessary to remove the livestock from the paddock when the sprinklers are running.
FEWER FLIES AND COOLER CATTLE
According to Stan, the cattle seem to have fewer problems with flies during the hot summer days when they are in a paddock with the sprinklers in operation.
When asked if there were any surprises with this new system, Stan said, “Yes, there were several surprises that I did not expect“. "First, the cattle use the pods to cool off in the heat and for fly control. I was also surprised by the amount of warm-season grasses that showed up the first year of irrigation.“ (Those primarily being big bluestem and little bluestem.) "Previously, I was not aware of any of these grasses being present“.
Baker added, “I was surprised at how quick the system paid for itself. I did not expect the pods to be as durable as they are. There was virtually no damage from the cattle, nor even to one that was run over by a vehicle. The labor involved in moving the pods was more than I expected, but it is worth it."
The Bakers took over active management of the ranch six years ago. Margaret shares her time in management and the ranch bookkeeping with caring for their 8-month-old twin sons. Stan spends several days a week at the ranch. They sold their original cow herd two years ago using the Bud Williams marketing strategy at a time when they thought the market was peaking. They now buy and sell short term; cows, yearlings, and/or calves and custom graze 1500 head steers on the warm-season summer pastures. Stan is confident that the strategies and irrigation system they use are paying off. In six years they took a 1000-cow-herd ranch that was losing money to a profitable and sustaining, environmentally friendly, operation.
"Being a business person I learned that to be successful, find those who are doing it right and do it like them - nothing less and nothing more," said Stan. And he is happy to share his successes with the next person who wants to learn.
Bob Scriven is an irrigated pasture consultant from Kearney, Nebraska. He can be contacted at [email protected].