Really, 50 years? A entire, l-o-n-g, half-century of making circles? Well, with his family’s first seven T-L center pivots now working their 27th season, Reed McClymont, Holdrege, Nebraska, feels he has more than a little confidence in his statement.
His father, Phil, added an eighth T-L unit the following year. Now the family operates 23 T-Ls, plus ten electric units on land they rent. McClymont is in charge of crop growing and his brother Peter handles their 15,000 head capacity beef feedlot.
It was the traditional conventional tillage on their farm until three years ago. Then a big double switch was made to a corn:soybeans rotation and virtual no-till.
During those past three seasons, several of them experienced extreme drought, McClymont’s records show their soybean yields ranged from 61 to 68 bushels an acre. The corn averaged between 197 to 207 bushels, with one field managed normally and not for any contest, coming in at a whopping 238 bushels an acre.
“We need to be able to consistently raise high yielding crops,” McClymont points out. “Irrigation, center pivot irrigation in particular, allows us to do just that.”
Achieving this has been one of the three objectives on which he’s focused. The other two are controlling expenses and marketing.
Realizing early on the value of an annual maintenance program, McClymont says that every winter he and his men spend three to four hours with each of their T-Ls. This routine includes checking the oil, gearboxes, and tires, changing hydraulic filters, and greasing the pivot point.
His records show total average outlay for this work on the T-Ls to be less than one-sixth the average maintenance bill for an electric unit.
Then, during the summer, while it’s a rarity for him to request a service call for one of the T-Ls, “Each of our electric machines will average between three to four service calls during the season. Ninety percent of the time it’s a switch, a lot probably due to the constant starting and stopping each tower does,” McClymont says.
“So, that’s usually a half-day of sprinkling lost, although we had one unit last summer that took two days to fix. We have two electrics that chronically seem to blow fuses with every thunderstorm.”
With their T-Ls, though, they typically experience few if any problems other than a tower getting stuck on occasion, and that’s not peculiar to T-Ls alone, according to McClymont.
However, in contrast to the electrics, he notes that their employees can do 100 percent of any necessary work on the hydro static T-Ls. That’s not the case at all with an electric center pivot.
McClymont recalls a bad experience with electricity at a young age, and he just doesn’t like working around it. Neither do their employees. He also thinks that if they attempted to do much of the electrical repair work themselves, from a safety standpoint two men should work together in case of an accident. This, however, would add to expenses.
“We see a lot of neighbors routinely replacing their 20-year-old electric center pivots,” McClymont smiles. “Meanwhile, our 27-year-old T-Ls are as structurally sound as the day they were put up, and still run straight as a string. All we’ve done over the years is replace some nozzles and tires and change the sprinkler package.
“We believe that with proper maintenance our T-Ls will run until they’re 50 years old.”
Incidentally, McClymont thinks it’s possible that T-L center pivots might provide at least a small yield advantage due to their continual motion. This results in fertilizer applied through the system being more evenly distributed to all the plants in a field.
He comments that he’s also “been really impressed” with many of the new features made available on T-Ls in the past several years.
High on his list is the ability to control center pivot speed and direction from the well location. This is especially important on the fields they’re converting from gravity to sprinkler where the well is at a different location from the pivot point.
Also appreciated, he says, is the flexibility and wide variety of sprinkler options T-L Irrigation makes available. There’s a sprinkler package that can fit almost any soil and slope situation.
“We like the way they’re made, the quality of the equipment, the lack of repair work needed, and their longevity” McClymont sums up. “We think the T-L is a much better value than an electric.”
Now 70 percent center-pivot irrigated, the McClymonts are switching their remaining gravity irrigated 30 percent over to center pivots as quickly as they can. There are many reasons for this, with increased net profi t certainly the most important.
“I did a comparison last winter of what it cost us to pump water in 2002,” McClymont reports. “We had $18.52 less energy expense per acre under our center pivots than we did under gravity irrigation!”
“And,” he quickly adds, “that figure doesn’t consider the lower labor and machine costs, and how we usually needed to make fewer trips over a center pivot field. I calculated that there was a nine bushel an acre corn yield difference favoring the center pivots, too.”
Nor does the pumping cost figure reflect being able to put on water any time McClymont wants to improve a stand or water down a herbicide for enhanced weed control. Their pivots are also used to apply pesticides and approximately 60 percent of all the fertilizer going on any field.
“Center pivots are just a tremendous tool we can use to solve a lot of the management problems that we may run into during the growing season,” McClymont says.
Projecting into the future, he also notes that, “We’re looking at a time when the amount of water we can pump in a year or three-year average is regulated. Only a center pivot will realistically allow us to manage water usage under that kind of situation.”
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.”
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.