There are custom hay harvesters, and then there are custom hay harvesters–like Morrill Hay Company, Inc. of Larned, Kansas.
Because, every spring through fall 10,000 acres of alfalfa hay are routinely swathed and baled by his company, according to owner George Morrill. He owns 20 percent of the acres in alfalfa.
Approximately 60 percent of the entire acreage is irrigated. Annual dryland yields vary with the rainfall, but generally fall into the two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half tons an acre range. Irrigated alfalfa yields also vary, from five to seven tons an acre, with six tons a good average.
His original experience was with flood irrigation. However, he’s since upgraded some of his own land with center pivot systems, plus put center pivots to work on the rolling hills that were impossible to flood irrigate.
“Irrigation of alfalfa is important in this area. This guarantees us a higher yield and more acres to harvest throughout the summer regardless of whether or not it rains,” Morrill says.
His company operates two T-L center pivots in addition to several electric center pivot systems. One of the T-Ls that he bought used is now 18 years old and, “It’s structurally sound with awfully good pipe. It’s a really well built, heavy machine that I think will last a long time yet.”
Morrill reports that his T-Ls certainly don’t have the gearbox problems suffered by his electric systems. He thinks this is due to the T-L use of hydraulic motors and so not having an electric system’s continual wear and tear of starting and stopping.
“You replace an electric center pivots gearbox and it’s $300-plus,” he grimaces. “Last year, for instance, we had an electric center pivot system with a big problem. We eventually replaced seven or eight electric motors and spent $3,000 on those repairs for it alone.”
“The repairs on our T-Ls are definitely less. If we spend $500 a year on one we think we’ve spent a lot of money. Our experience has been that T-L repair costs are less than half of an electric’s annual expenses.”
Morrill believes that, “T-L center pivots run pretty trouble free and repair free, so there isn’t a lot of extra cost coming in all the time. With just some good annual maintenance and lubrication they’ll run a long time with little trouble.”
Although it’s difficult to detect by the eye, he thinks there’s also another advantage to the T-L’s continual movement. Since the unit doesn’t move fi ve feet and stop and then start again there obviously will be less variation in the amount of water applied over the field.
Then there’s the safety factor. As Morrill points out, “Any time we have to send out someone inexperienced around electricity it’s kind of scary to us.”
He says it’s worrisome that it’s possible for the 480 volts of an electric center pivot to electrocute a worker if he accidentally touches it while grounded and it’s “hot”. As he notes, “We don’t have to worry about the hydraulic pressure that runs a T-L hurting somebody.”
Nothing made by man is completely trouble-free, of course. Regardless, Morrill says T-L Irrigation really stands behind its products.
“They’re just like farm people in that they have a lot of integrity and in how they keep their word,” he adds.
“There’s just not as much downtime with T-L center pivots. And, it’s downtime that can really cost you money in the hay business if it’s hot and dry,” Morrill continues.
“Our experience has been that the T-L is a good, dependable machine. For the money invested for anything in our operation, a T-L is probably the best buy we can make.”
PMDI Hikes Net Profit Per Acre
Morrill has limited experience with the PMDI concept, with emphasis on “limited” due to having to utilize a well with capacity so restricted that he had to shut down two and then three towers` of the center pivot. Here are his observations.
- PMDI alfalfa was three to four inches taller when swathed than comparable fields that were sprinkler irrigated.
- Water isn’t sprayed on the leaves where it can readily evaporate by wind and sunlight. Instead, the water is applied under the canopy of the crop where it soaks in.
- As both water supplies and regulations get tighter, more and more PMDI units will be installed since they’re so much more efficient.
- Can’t chemigate, “water up” a new stand of alfalfa, or incorporate sprayed on herbicides.
“It looks like PMDI results in a quarter of a ton more alfalfa hay per cutting, or call it close to producing another ton of hay a year from a field!”
So, even at feedlot grinding hay prices–and Morrill sells much of his hay to out-of-state dairies at premium prices–PMDI perceptibly hikes net profit per acre.
Great Bend, Kansas
“Confidence.” That’s how Roger Brining of Great Bend, Kansas, expresses his feelings about his three hydrostatically powered T-Ls, even though a service man for a major electric brand lives only a mile away and his T-L dealer is 134 miles over the horizon.
And furthermore, he says that when he bought his most recent T-L he didn’t even “research” or compare prices with other brands.
His reasoning: “My T-Ls just run and run and run and run….”
He used to farm ten quarter-sections of land near Alamosa, Colorado, in the 1980s where ten electric systems were running. What he learned from this was, “I really had my fill of microswitches.”
“Also, when we flew over our fields there we’d see just horrendous spoking from all that starting and stopping,” he says. “The input shaft of an electric system goes from zero to 1,760 rpms and then to zero again several thousand times a day.”
“What impressed me the most about T-Ls was their continuous movement that didn’t either over apply or under apply water. I knew with T-Ls there would be less maintenance and wear and tear on the gearboxes and motors due to their steady, continuous motion.”
Brining also remembers clearly when he was knocked off an electric system in Colorado. A previous tenant, in an effort to save $11 on a micro-switch, had done some bypassing so there was electricity when there wasn’t supposed to be any.
Soaking wet, yet luckily on the back side of the sprinkler, his leg barely touched the electric system–in a fraction of a second he was blown into a muddy wheel track with the wind knocked out of him. It required $3,000 in microswitches and fuses to render some measure of safety.
“Each tower was so complex that one such failure would shut down everything. So, in 1989 I told my Dad I thought a hydraulically powered T-L was the way to go. He then installed the first of our T-Ls,” Brining remembers.
It replaced the first center-pivot in the county, a 20-year-old non-T-L unit that hadn’t run much for five years.
“It’s an art to align electric systems. On the other hand, alignment is a breeze with a T-L,” he comments.
Brining is in the process of replacing his older T-Ls, not because they have maintenance problems, but due to the effects of his hard, high iron content water on the pipe.
“The new ones will have T-L’s poly-lined pipe,” he continues. I’m anticipating that I’ll be able to run these systems for 30 years, too. Thirty years is a long time for a pivot. I’d dread having a 30-year-old electric. That would be a nightmare.”
He sums up his feeling about T-Ls by saying, “I love the T-L simplicity!”
Brining is utilizing some sub-surface drip irrigation (SDI). Both methods have advantages, he believes. His main thrust, though, is irrigating via T-L center-pivots.
“I’m almost 100 percent no-till, and I double-crop 40 percent of my 3,000 acres,” he says. “The center-pivot is easier for real intensive double-cropping, because with it I can safely drill in wheat in less than ideal conditions.”
Wheat following corn can be difficult to germinate due to the crop’s residue. His solution: Sprinkle on a quarter-inch of water every two to three days until plant emergence. This practice has resulted in an essentially 100 percent stand.
Being able to water up any crop is also a big advantage of center-pivot irrigation over drip, he thinks. Additionally, drip can’t be used for “chemigation” if the herbicide requires plant contact.
Then there are the problems of how deeply a drip tape field can be worked without destroying the tape, and the rodents that often find the tape tasty. Initial investment is generally lower with a center-pivot, too.
Brining believes two rules of thumb for farming apply: (1). Any irrigation, even flood irrigation, is better for producing higher yields than dry land farming, and (2). Center-pivot and sub-surface drip irrigation are both much more efficient than flood irrigation, not to mention their being substantially less labor intensive.
Typical of many farmers in his region, the ground that Warren Fox, Plains, Kansas, farms is sandy, loamy soil on rolling hills. So, when he began irrigating he didn’t even consider flood irrigation. As he notes, “Even if flood irrigation would have worked, which it couldn’t due to the expense of leveling alone, it just wasn’t efficient enough and I didn’t have the necessary labor.”
Warren Fox grows corn, soybeans and wheat. Fox also uses T-L pivots to irrigate grasses for hay to be fed to his cowherd. This eight-year-old field of WW Spar and Ironmaster is still yielding well despite its age. Fox takes off two cuttings after grazing it until June each year with his cows and spring calves by side. He irrigates two such grass circles from one well, with the pivots making a round every two days.
Now he has 30 center pivot systems on the move during the growing season. Fox had experience with irrigation systems from half a dozen manufacturers over the years. Twelve of his present pivots are T-L Irrigation Co. units, with more to follow, he predicts.
He bought his first T-L in 1988. He’d talked with his neighbors using T-L systems who told him they were getting along pretty well with them.
“I was looking for simplicity,” Fox points out, “In short, a pivot that would keep on making circles without a lot of repairs and expense. I also liked T-L’s continuous movement, no start-stop like an electric system that can make an uneven water pattern. What I’ve found is that T-L is a stout machine with a structure that can’t be beat.”
Fox likens the continual starting and stopping of electric systems to using an impact wrench on the unit’s parts since it starts at 100% speed and shuts off the same way. Electrics are just not the low maintenance machines that T-L’s are, he believes, based on experience.
“If I could take a vacation with all the money I’ve spent on T-L parts and labor over the years it would be pretty short”, Fox smiles. During the thirteen years he’s been using his first T-L system the only repairs it has needed have been one gearbox and a couple of 3/8 inch bolts in the driveline.
According to Fox, “That system is as dependable as the first day I bought it. Look at the storage bins in my shop and you’ll see only a handful of T-L parts, and I have had bins full of electrical pivot parts.” He adds, “I almost always check my T-L systems last every morning, because I know they will be running and won’t require maintenance. I don’t find that with my electric machines.”
It’s difficult to calculate the true cost of a repair shutdown, Fox says, but he thinks that crop losses due to three or four shutdowns a season while the unit sits a half-day or more, can quickly add up to affect his bottom line.
On the other hand, Tom Wright IV of Lakin, Kansas, started with flood irrigation. His methods evolved from ditch, to pipe, to surge valves over the years, yet he still wasn’t satisfied. “I was looking for more efficiency and labor savings,” he recalls, explaining why nine quarter-mile and two half-mile systems have replaced flood irrigation on his land.
“The 60 to 80 acres we could typically handle under flood irrigation expanded to 180 acres under pivots and meanwhile increase our yields.” Wright continues, “Pivot irrigation is also a lot easier on the body. Since I quit flood irrigating I don’t have back problems.”
In contrast to Fox, all of Wright’s pivots are T-L units. He says, “I decided in the beginning to go with the hydraulic T-Ls and I haven’t regretted it. In eight years the total of downtime with our 11 units has been only five or six hours. I’ve liked the T-L strength and reliability,” he continues, “since they seem to be built good and hold together well. I also like being able to keep everything as safe as I can for my employees and me. I wouldn’t want either of us working on an electric system.”
Efficiency is also important to Wright since his wells range in capacity from barely 300 gallons a minute to 450 gallons a minute. He’s also noticed none of the “spoking” effect typical of the continual starting and stopping of a neighbor’s electric pivots. This can leave portions of a crop wilted immediately after the pivot has moved on.
The start stop factor no doubt contributes to increased wear, too, he reasons. As for his T-L dealer service, Wright says it’s gone from good to even better. And, he likes the full service offered that enables him to deal with just one firm for everything from irrigation well to pipe to sprinkler.
Summing up his experience with T-L pivot systems, Wright says, “You can buy cheaper systems, but you get what you pay for. I’m also a Pioneer seed salesman and here also you can buy cheaper seed elsewhere, but you can’t count on the best yields with it.”