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Managing irrigation systems helps utilize water efficiently

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

As irrigation districts are preparing for the 2012 irrigation season, there are efforts that can be made to efficiently and effectively use water. The NRCS, irrigation districts, as well as conservation districts weighed in on how to best utilize Wyoming’s water resources.
Sprinkers and pivots
    In southeast Wyoming, Laramie County Conservation District Manager John Cochran says most of their farmland is irrigated by center pivot systems fed by ground water wells.
    “The big push down here lately is the cost of pumping,” says Cochran, noting that most pumps are electric. “We have been replacing a lot of pumps and installing variable frequency drive motors.”
    He explains that these motors reduce irrigation costs by starting the pump more slowly and only providing the pump with as much electricity as it needs, both of which reduce energy demands.
    “Of the methods of irrigation, sprinkler irrigation and pivot irrigation are pretty efficient, as long as you keep everything in proper working order,” adds NRCS civil engineering technician Al Lopez.
Other systems
    “In the Heart Mountain Irrigation District, there are quite a few sprinklers, but we haven’t seen very many yet,” comments Shoshone Irrigation District Manager Bryant Startin. “There has to be a pumping system and power in place, but for some the cost of that is still cheaper than the labor to flood irrigate.”
    Startin notes that the decreased labor needed in a sprinkler system is a driver for those producers using the systems.
    “There are still open ditches with pipe and tubes, but as far as the least amount of loss and problems with weeds, gated pipe is a good tool,” adds Startin. “I bet that 75 percent of everything we deliver here is to gated pipe.”
    Gated pipe offers other benefits to producers, including less labor and fewer problems with water fluctuation.
    Cochran also notes that other systems are available, such as underground drip, but can be costly.
    “We tried one underground drip system here that was 240 acres,” he says. “It was expensive to put in, and expensive to maintain and manage. We need to do some more perfecting on that system before it is standard.”
Equipment maintenance
    Lopez notes that, to best utilize water, maintaining equipment is very important.
    “If producers are using a gated pipe system, they want to make sure the pipe and gates are in good shape,” he says. “For center pivots, they will want to check nozzles, pumps and pipelines to make sure everything is in working order.”
    Lopez notes that by maintaining equipment properly, producers can ensure their systems are working properly and distributing water effectively.
    “At NRCS, we design those practices,” he explains, adding that NRCS also provides documents for operation and maintenance of systems at “On the right side of our homepage is a link for eFOTG. Section Four describes conservation practices, and under each is a page called Operation and Maintenance. If a person follows those items through the years, it will help the life expectancy of the practice.”
Crop management
    Cochran also mentions that crop rotations can help producers utilize water effectively.
    “Try to split a circle so you have a lower use crop in with a high use crop, that is helpful,” says Cochran, mentioning that water use is spread out through the year, rather than concentrated at a particular time. “For example, maybe plant half a circle in wheat, which uses a lot of water in fall, and across from that, corn, which is more of a summer annual. If farmers are short on having enough water to keep everything going, that works well.”
    He adds that keeping track of soil moisture, how much water goes on a field, and how much water a crop is using is also helpful.
    “It’s kind of like keeping a checkbook – keep track of money in and money out,” he explains, noting that taking soil moisture samples or crop stress measurements can help determine how much water is needed.
    “It’s also like guessing the weight of your steers,” he adds. “If you never actually weigh and see how close you are, you’ll never get any better.”
Bigger projects
    Don Britton, manager of the Wheatland Irrigation District, says district-wide, Wheatland has made efforts at conserving water.
    “Starting a few years ago through the Wyoming Water Development Commission, we began working on a conservation study,” he says. “We have put in some small inflow ponds on our ditches and in our ditch system.”
    He explains that the system helps to regulate water. If there is too much in a ditch, some can be put in, or if they run short, water can be turned out. They have also been working to enlarge ditches and utilize both raised flow and actual flow gates.
    “We have quite a few new practices that we have initiated,” Britton says.
    In the Shoshone Irrigation District, Startin says, “As a district, we are in the mode of burying open ditches with pipe and using water management devices. It has been really good for us.”
    “Things are looking pretty good for this year,” adds Startin. “We are in good shape right now.”
    Saige Albert is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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