1. move or jump suddenly or rapidly upward or forward.
synonyms: leap, jump, bound, vault, hop
And so it begins.
Spring brings with its new life and youthful vigor a mad dash for all those in the ag industry- this is the time to capitalize on cool temperatures, spring rains, and new melting snow pack. With our own snow pack at 150% of our normal, we've been eager (as we are every year) to get all of our irrigation systems up and running to take full advantage of every bit of water we can!
If only it were so simple.
[ BRINGING THE HERD IN ]
Spring also means moving the herd onto their summer graze- which for us means two weeks of hauling cows and calves from winter fields, working them in the corral, and then trailering them to their fields. Most people are familiar with the concept of the cattle drive, but since we keep our herds on pastured ground year round in two different valleys, a cattle drive would be quite impractical for our locale and model. (The romantic side of me gets a bit wistful at the loss, but my practical side gets excited every time we improve on our efficiency in this seemingly monumental undertaking.) This job is pretty much an "all hands on deck" kinda job, so everything else more or less gets put on hold for these two weeks!
[ IRRIGATION PREP ]
We use both flood irrigation and sprinkle irrigation to keep our fields healthy and growing. Our goal is to get all of our fields to the much more efficient sprinkle irrigation systems to be more conservative and balanced with our water use. Flood irrigating is also much more labor intensive and requires a constant assessment of the needs of each individual field which shifts as spring warms into summer- temperatures rise and as summer wears on, water supply slows.
Through the winter, our herds graze and calve on our grass fields. We protect our wheel lines and hand lines from the cows by pushing them up against the fenceline, securing them in place and then erecting a temporary hotwire fence for the winter.
That's one thing I had never given any thought to before I started ranching- exactly how hard cows are on everything. They are really just big blundering eating machines. There are, essentially, three questions a cow asks when evaluating objects present in her environment:
1} Is it food?
2} Is it good for scratching?
3} Is it going to chase me or move?
Fences and wheel lines, if you'd like to know, are GREAT scratchers.
But I digress.
Those temporary fences need to be removed completely from the field, which means all hot wire is rolled up and stored and all posts pulled and stored or moved to another use. Once the fence and all accoutrements are removed from the field, the line can be moved into position. This requires a rudimentary check of all sprinklers and other parts to see if we can catch anything that got broken before turning the line on, as well as straightening the entire line. Not all fences/fields are perfectly straight of course, so some require we dissemble parts of the line to fit more closely to the fence- which then need to be reassembled in the spring! Once the line is prepped, it needs to be flushed of any mud or critters that may have holed up for winter inside.
It's not a terribly difficult job to be sure, but it does take considerable time- especially when you have several wheel lines to attend to!
Sprinkle irrigation prep is a very mechanical job.
Flood irrigation prep is much more intimate to the land. The land itself shifts and changes in minor ways every year, but some of those changes can add up to significant impacts on water distribution. The patterns of the herd movements through the winter, particularly in the early spring when the ground is soft impacts not only the ditches, which get corroded by cattle walking them in and need to be corrected every few years, but also areas within the fields themselves- which you often won't notice until you begin irrigating and find new dry spots. The same problem arises with heavy equipment on soft ground- suddenly you may have new "ditches" in the middle of your field diverting your water.
The mechanical side of prepping a field for flood irrigating is relatively simple. You make your tarp dams- maybe you've seen those blue or orange canvas tarps in ditches- cutting the roll to the size of each post you will use, delivering all those tarps to your field and distributing them as needed. Some fields have ditches that need more heavy correction, so that's where the heavy equipment comes into play to build up those banks. Or maybe your field uses gated pipe to irrigate- so those need to be flushed as well, and turned back into position or put together entirely, depending on the field. Ours range in size from 6in to 10in diameters and you can certainly feel the difference in the weight! All the gaskets need to be checked, as well as the gates to ensure you've got the maximum possible control of your water and pressure.
As mentioned, though, the land has changed over the winter and you don't know what changes will affect what areas of your field and how significantly. So even though you may get all the pieces in place to put water onto the field, prepping for irrigating has only just begun. Now the real work begins- and it's mainly a LOT of digging. Shovel work to correct the path of water, redistributing heavy flow areas across dry. Finding and fixing old weaknesses and new. Figuring out what tarp placement will optimize your water flow for each particular set. If the ground is weak in a particular place- meaning a lack of grass root holding the topsoil in place- the goal is to slow the flow so as to not lose topsoil. That calculation also has to take into account how far the water has to travel over the next 24 hours- which obviously also changes if you're on a hill or on flat ground. Suffice it to say, you'll likely still be "prepping" some of your fields for irrigation long into summer - and you'll have ample opportunity to fine-tune after the first and second cuttings.
[ WEED CONTROL ]
Along with those lovely temperatures and spring rains come the weeds- fortunately, if you've done the work of irrigating, you'll hold them at bay on the fringes of your fields, no other work required. This is one of many reasons we work so hard to get water on every inch of ground. The places that don't see water are inevitably plagued with thistles and the dreaded white top. This requires more digging within the field to target those dry sections- whether with a shovel or a V-ditcher more or less depends on when you can get to it. A V-ditcher on a tractor is simply not practical on recently irrigated ground or on taller grass, so for irrigating purposes before the grass is harvested or grazed down enough to use that big equipment, that trusty shovel is an irrigator's best friend.
In the middle of your fields though, the better solution in to just hack those thistles down with your shovel. Again, still another reason we so highly value the equitable use of water on our fields!
Needless to say, we have been BUSY and will continue to be so until our irrigation systems stabilize and we fall into our regular rhythms. The fields are such a glorious green, with particularly deep and luscious grass this spring- I'm excited to see what the first cutting will bring and what other projects we can accomplish with the support these cool temperatures and spring rains have afforded us!