Mike Kamler, of Shickley, Nebraska, replaced gravity irrigation with ten electric enter-pivots in 1974. In 2001 he bought his first T-L system, and since then has added four more, all T-Ls. All feature drop nozzles with rotators irrigating mostly corn.
That first T-L has now run for seven seasons and 4,300 hours. The other three T-Ls each rack up 250 to 750 hours annually. Yet he’s never called his dealer to exclaim, “A pivot’s down! Hurry out!”
“I’d like to say my T-L dealer’s service is second to none, but I can’t,” Kamler comments with a twinkle. “That’s because in seven years I haven’t had a service call! The only problem I’ve had is when a cow rubbed against a pipe and broke it.”
All four T-Ls have planetary gear boxes. He’s found this to be worth the extra investment over worm gears, since he anticipates being able to run them 20 to 30 years without experiencing the gear box problems typical of electric systems. The galvanizing is also quite good, he thinks, and should result in long, rust-free lives.
Service maintenance has consisted solely of checking for grease in the fall, changing the filter and pumping air into the tires both spring and fall. He’s experienced no water issues.
The time needed to routinely service one of Kamler’s T-Ls averages an hour to an hour-and-a-half. For each electric unit, however, the time required is more like two-and-a-half to three hours.
He’s certain he can “Definitely!” see more uniformity in his T-L-irrigated fields due to the systems continuous movement. A few minutes spent up on an electric system’s tower while his son was at the pivot point doing the moving further convinced him.
“Its instantaneous jerk when it kicked into gear almost threw me off,” he says. “Also, there are going to be streaks in the field where an electric center-pivot stops and starts. I’m sure this affects yields. How much, I don’t know. But, whatever has a positive influence on yields puts more bushels in my bin.”
As for working on his electrics, Kamler explains that while he’s fairly comfortable around the high voltage electricity, it scares him. With 480 volts, all it would take is one slip, he cautions.
There’s an unusual developing downside for electric center-pivots in his area, too. Due to the present high price of copper, thieves are coming in and making off with the copper wiring.
“Combining T-L’s simplicity and reliability with a good dealer, I am confident about my T-L center-pivots. I just go out and start ’em and run ’em. I don’t have to work on ’em. My T-Ls put money in my back pocket, I believe, because they need fewer repairs and less maintenance.
“Of course,” he admits, “no matter how good a machine is, some day it’s going to break down. That’s why it’s so important to have a good dealer, like mine, behind me.
“T-Ls are just so much better! Simpler and more reliable with low maintenance,” Kamler sums up, “for the same amount of money as electric, I just don’t see why you wouldn’t buy a T-L.”
Corner systems pay off
Kamler utilizes one T-L corner system on his landlord’s farm. His landlord was about fed up with corner systems at one point, though. That’s because the electric corner system on an electric center-pivot went down three times, the last time “falling like a dinosaur and just lying there”.
Then he decided to replace his electric with a T-L, including a corner system. The result: “It has probably 3,500 hours on it, and the unit has just been flawless,” says Kamler.
And, yes, at first glance a corner system might seem tough to justify, since it may cost an extra $1,200 an acre for each corner acre covered. Yet to purchase irrigated cropland in the area would require three times that much investment.
As Kamler explains, dry-land corn can produce anywhere from zero to 140 bushels an acre, depending on rainfall. Over the years, he figures, on an average, to have made 50 bushels an acre on his dry-land. With corn at $3.30 a bushels, that’s a gross of $165 an acre.
However, an irrigated corn average on his farm will be 200 to 220 bushels an acre. Call it 210 bushels, and that’s a gross of $693 an acre — making paying off the additional initial investment of a corner system a rather short-term thing.
Saying there’s a pretty fine line between ridge-till and no-till, Kamler points out that he prefers working with ridges for several reasons: Water drains off of low spots better, the soil seems to warm up quicker in the spring, water has a place to go after a heavy rain, and if the corn goes down for some reason, it’s easier to get the picker snouts under it.
“In the first place,” he continues, “except for a silage guy running into one of the towers, all of our T-Ls have been pretty trouble-free. We’ve never replaced a gearbox or even had an oil leak. We’ve never had a problem yet with a T-L.”
“All we do is run them through the maintenance program every year. They’re great.”
This includes a T-L unit initially installed 30 years ago. Since then it’s run 650 to 1,200 hours every summer. Although it was designed as a high pressure system, Weeks says it’s now operated at a medium pressure.
Figuring an average of 800 hours a year, he estimates that this particular T-L has operated at least 24,000 hours; and it is still waiting for its first major repair.
Altogether, Ryan and his father, Mike, farm 2,400 acres near Juniata, Nebraska, which is divided among no-till dry land, ridge-till gravity irrigation fields, and a combination of ridge-till and no-till under the center-pivots. The men operate six pivots, three T-Ls and three non-owned electric systems. Field-wide, their irrigated corn generally produces more than 200 bushels an acre.
“One of the best things about a T-L unit is if I ever need to work on one, I could do it myself,” Weeks continues. “If we’d need a part we’d have it within 24 to 36 hours, too. T-Ls are simple. Most farmers understand hydraulics, since almost every piece of equipment they use has hydraulics. I wouldn’t have to call an electrician.”
In contrast, he points to a breakdown on one of the electric sprinklers last spring. The first dealer the Weeks called said he could be on the farm in maybe five days. The second dealer in the area thought he could possibly be there in three days.
“This is the biggest problem we have with the electric units, that and I’m just nervous around electricity. With a T-L the worry factor is gone.”
He says that when they hear a whine coming from an electric center-pivot, they know they’re soon going to have to be doing some mosquito-fraught replacement work.
Another way to look at, “It never quits moving,” according to Weeks, is that the corn grown under T-L irrigation this past summer looked “100 percent better” than corn under the electric centerpivots.
“On one farm in particular, we could see the difference in sprinkler packages and the advantage of the T-L’s continuous movement,” he relates. “Some of this we could attribute partly to management changes, but a lot of it was due to a more uniform water application, because the T-L never stops.”
As for comparing a center-pivot system to gravity irrigation, Weeks emphasizes that there’s really no comparison. The center-pivots, he says, represent “a lot less work, more efficiency and less sweating.”
Meanwhile, Ryan and his father are convinced that today’s farmers must be stewards of their resources, especially in an area of declining water tables.
Their experience has been that a center-pivot system uses half the water and half the fuel that is required to cover the same number of acres by gravity irrigation, thinking that might be a conservative estimate, too.
They believe the old “Time is money” saying applies to center-pivot superiority quite well, Weeks also equates the effort saved to precious additional time with the family, getting more things done and the capability to take on more acres.
He’s also noted the many technological advances made in T-L systems as time has gone on, commenting that, “There’s been so much done with end guns, booster pumps and drops. Everything is just all-around better.”
“I like the fact that T-L’s owners were and are still farmers,” he smiles. “Anybody can invent something. But, until there’s a practical application you don’t know it’s going to work.”
“The T-L people put their products on their own farms and they try to make sure an idea is going to work before it goes to anybody else. If they trust it on their own farms, we’ll trust it on ours.”
GPS is just one of the modern “tools” used on the Weeks’ farm. As Ryan points out, “We’ve invested in technology.”
This consists of using variablerate seeding with their corn planter for the past three years; utilizing a yield monitor and its mapping ability on their combine, then writing “prescriptions” for their dealer to apply variable-rate fertilizer that contains many micronutrients.
Ryan is a member of the Nebraska Leadership Education/Action Program (LEAD), a select group of farmers dedicated to developing a network of highly motivated leaders for agriculture.
For LaMoine Smith, pivot irrigation and no-till farming are akin to the chicken and the egg and the question about which came first. In Smith’s case, it’s been pivot irrigation.
“It’s nearly impossible to do no- till farming with furrow irrigation,” says Smith, who farms around 1,000 acres of corn and soybeans southeast of Minden, Nebraska. “You can try, but it’s hard to leave much residue on the surface and still get irrigation water down the rows.”
Smith says he actually started no-till farming on some of his dryland acres in 1995. Before long, he had converted the remainder of the farm’s 200 acres of dryland fields to a no-till program, and had moved on to the two existing pivots.
“It finally got to the point where I could see we were saving so much money with no-till that we had to have more center pivots,” he says. “Gravity irrigation was just getting too expensive, not only in terms of poor water efficiency, but in the amount of equipment and fuel needed for tillage.”
Smith says even when he attempted to make fewer passes by switching to ridge till on gravity irrigated fields, he still had to make several passes with the tractor.
“The savings on fuel and equipment is unbelievable,” he says. “When I was doing all conventional tillage, I was putting about 300 hours per year on each of two tractors, while covering 600 acres. Now, I cover 1,000 acres and put around 350 hours on just one tractor.” Key to the entire no-till program, however, has been putting the water on from above by means of center pivot units, rather than down the row via gated pipe and gravity.
“We had two pivots when I started farming with my dad in 1983,” he explains. “One was a T-L unit and the other was a Valley electric system. Since that time, I’ve traded that first T-L for a newer unit and purchased two more T-L pivots.”
The irony is that LaMoine was the one responsible for selling his dad the first T-L, while his brother was the one who sold him the electric unit.
“I was working for T-L at the time and my brother was working for Valmont, so dad figured that, in an effort to keep peace in the family, he’d buy one from each of us,” Smithrecalls.
Smith explains that after college, he worked for eight years as a district manager for T-L out of Great Bend, Kansas, before moving back to Nebraska, where he joined his father on the family farm.
As he worked back into farming in the early ’80s, Smith continued to supplement his income as a salesman for the local T-L dealership, while driving a school bus on the side. It was only after his dad retired in 1987 that he began farming full-time.
While some might assume Smith still holds a preference for T-L pivots because of his past experience with the company,LaMoine will be the first to tell you it’s really about the machines.
“The bottom line is ‘they run’,” he says. “And they run with very little maintenance. The old saying, ‘Keep it simple stupid’ or ‘KISS’ really applies with T-L.
“It just amazes me when you can put the drive components for a T-L and an electric pivot side-by-side, and people don’t just go, “Well yeah, I can see the difference!'” he says. “It’s like here you’ve got a hydraulic valve and a motor and over here you’ve got electrical switches, contacts, relay switches, timers, U-joints and electric motors. Yet, they’ll pick that one and I want to say, ‘But why?'”
even though Smith still has the Valley pivot, he says the unit has pretty much been rebuilt in the last five years as he’s replaced motors, relays, switches and gearboxes.
“It gets to the point you can’t trade it, because you have too much money invested in repairs,” he adds, noting that his brother has long since changed careers.
In the meantime, Smith traded the original T-L for a newer one and the dealer, in turn, sold it to a producer in northern Nebraska.
“The fact that a 34-year-old pivot that’s required very little maintenance or repair can be resold as a working unit says a lot about the reliability and resale value of T-L pivots,” he insists. “They just keep going. That system still has the original gearboxes and motors!”
As far as Smith is concerned, that’s a good thing, because he still has one 80-acre field that is gravity irrigated with gated pipe.
“It’s not worth buying any new equipment just to work and plant that field,” he says. “So I make-do with some older equipment just so I can furrow irrigate that field. However, the plans are to add a T-L pivot on that one within a year or two. Then everything will be no-till, whether it’s irrigated or dryland.”