When Brett Barker and Heidi Berger first purchased their place on Rogers Mesa (near Hotchkiss) in the fall of 2013 it was in serious need of some TLC. There was a gated pipe system for irrigation, but much of it was broken or plugged. Prairie dogs seemed to be running rampant, and Brett, a recognized teamster, needed facilities for housing his family of spotted draft horses.
Today, the draft horses eat contentedly in their new paddock, the remaining prairie dogs better sleep with one eye open, and cars stop along the road to check out the new high tech irrigation system. Heidi and Brett are the type of folks that make things happen once they put their minds to it and nowhere is this more apparent than their new irrigation system.
Brett had become a true expert at gated pipe. He had to in order to get everything wet. "The real joy of irrigating with gated pipe is that you gain an attachment to the land. With flood irrigation you see every inch of your property because you should be checking the top of the field and bottom of the field every day." There is still a few sticks of gated pipe on the property, but the majority of his hay ground is irrigated by the two new center pivots that were installed in the fall of 2015.
When asked about his conversion to the sprinklers, Brett has all positive things to say. "The pivots allow you to get to your first cutting faster because you can get across the field and get everything wet much faster. This year we cut the first week of June, which is the earliest we have cut." Brett has also seen an increase in his hay production under the pivots but he is most impressed with his irrigation turnaround times. "The first two seasons here, I was fighting to get water across the field after the first cut. The fields are burning up and you take forever to get across with gated pipe. With a pivot ,I'm across in four days. With the gated pipe that same scenario would have taken four weeks . . .We are positioned for a second cut earlier than we have ever been. The fact that we might get a third cut is a real bonus."
If operated correctly, center pivot sprinklers can be upwards to 80 percent efficient compared to a 50 percent efficiency factor for gated pipe. This means more water gets taken up into the plant to be used for growth and production and less water is lost to runoff and deep percolation below the plants root zone.
That increase in production and quality is especially important to Brett, who has some large mouths to feed. "About 22 years ago I began a project to raise and train a six up of spotted draft mares. And so as part of that for many years Heidi and I had a western entertainment cookout and chuck wagon business in Scottsdale, Arizona." Brett says their business was unique because it catered to small family and corporate groups. An afternoon at their place included wagon rides, a tour of the harness shop (where Brett hand builds all the harnesses for the mares) and cowboy poetry around the fire (he is also an accomplished storyteller and cowboy poet). All of the food provided was cooked in Dutch ovens around the fire. Due to age, many of the mares are now retired, but Heidi and Brett still enjoy taking them on wagon rides and occasionally farming with them (Brett uses them to cut a few acres of his hay with antique farm equipment). "Time spent with my draft horses in harness is precious and it is a great way to communicate with people, young and old," says Brett who has taken his team to the Cherry Day's parade a number of times. "We are committed to having a team of heavy horses and there will always be a team of horses at this farm."
Since the center pivots make circular patterns, they don't fit perfectly on a square field. To fill in the corners Brett has installed big gun sprinklers on riser posts where the pivots don't reach. "The fixed big guns cover a lot of area each. The droplets of water are not too large due to exceptional engineering so we are not beating down the grass strands. It used to take us six weeks to get across this entire property with gated pipe. With the pivots and the big guns together it takes us six days. And you're filling in the corners in a very efficient manner. What a fantastic way to water," he says.
At first this system may seem like a typical sprinkler project, but a closer look reveals some important details. The sprinklers are all manufactured by Reinke and were installed by Andy Pavlisick and his crew from High Country Equipment (HCE) in Hotchkiss. HCE also connected the hardware to an intricate network of sensors and a satellite modem which allows Brett to monitor and control the system remotely via an app on his phone. Even in another state he can open the app and check the location of the pivots and make sure everything is running right. "I've had times when I'm out of town for business. The automation allows me to see where the pivots are and what they are doing, what the daily water consumption is, all those parts and pieces. The automation significantly increases your opportunity for time leverage. Instead of looking out the window all night checking for a light to make sure everything is running, I can check my phone." He is even able to set notifications so he instantly knows if a pivot gets stuck or runs dry. "The other day one of these pivots got in trouble and stopped moving. I got a text to notify me. I was able to take corrective action in minutes."
Another interesting feature of this irrigation network is the ability to monitor soil moisture. The Reinke system seamlessly integrates with an Irrometer monitoring system that was funded via a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. This allows Brett to access soil moisture probes set in the field at different depths and in different locations to see how dry or wet the ground is. "Soil moisture monitoring is great, because now we get to correlate how much water we are applying to how the soil is reacting at different depths. There is a certain turnaround time that you need to adhere to in order to have a healthier crop and healthy soil."
Heidi and Brett both have extensive backgrounds in agriculture. Heidi was raised on an Angus ranch in Canada and began college as an ag major with the intention of becoming a veterinarian. Near the end of her college career she changed paths and began to pursue a business degree and finished up with an MBA. Brett grew up in the suburbs on the Front Range as a student athlete. Both sides of his family had roots in agriculture. Much of his summers were spent at his family farm in Texas, which is still in the family. He has always had a passion for the agriculture lifestyle, and both he and Heidi feel a spiritual connection to the land and agriculture in general.
"We are very proud to say that we are farmers," he says. Their recent move to western Colorado came after a long search to find a quiet, out of the way place, with enough water to grow some hay. When they began to think about upgrading the older dilapidated irrigation system, there were a lot of challenges to overcome. "The best part about this project was the partnership with our team members," Brett says. "Our team consisted of the land owners (Heidi and I), the manufacturer (Reinke), the local contractor (HCE), the Delta NRCS office staff, the Delta Conservation District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The collaborative effort that went into this means better ideas, it means a better system on the ground and it means we all benefit and grow together. We never would have taken on this project if we had been forced to rely completely on ourselves and our own resources. The team is what made this work."
The Delta Conservation District will be hosting a field tour on Aug. 30. The tour will include the Raymond farm micro-hydro power generation project in the morning and the Barker automated irrigation system in the afternoon. Busses will be provided to both sites. Please RSVP to one or both of these field tours by contacting the Delta Conservation District at 970-399-8194 as seating will be limited to 25 people.
The Delta office of the NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) and DCD (Delta Conservation District) may be able to provide financial assistance for system upgrades that qualify for the EQIP, RCPP or BSP programs. Interested land owners are encouraged to stop by the office at 690 Industrial Boulevard in Delta.
John Miller is an irrigation water management specialist with the Delta Conservation District. He can be reached at 970-399-8192 if you have questions about optimizing or upgrading your current irrigation system.