Stretching from South Dakota down to Texas, the Ogallala Aquifer has helped turn the land it irrigates into some of the world’s most agriculturally productive. Yet many farmers, researchers and others are concerned about recent signs that the aquifer is being depleted.
So what can be done to conserve those reserves? Many approaches, both new and old, are being researched, but one method of particular interest is subsurface drip irrigation (SDI). Whether or not SDI can replace center-pivot irrigation in field crops to improve water conservation and increase yields is a question Ricky James, a Plainview producer and Massey Ferguson customer, set out to answer.
James, whose brother Jerry operates the AGCO dealership James Bros. Implement, farms 2,600 acres. A little more than a decade ago, he decided to give SDI a try on 40 rented acres. Back then, most SDI was put on 80-inch spacings. “But then we hit the 2011 drought, with only 7 inches of rain that year, and those 80-inch centers wrecked us,” he says.
So the producer, who also sits on the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board, was left scrambling to add in the tape necessary for 40-inch centers. “Then the cost of that thing ran way up,” he says.
Lockney, Texas, drip installer Dusty Cornelius concedes that cost does intimidate some producers. He estimates $1,700 to $2,200 an acre for installation on 40-inch centers. By way of comparison, a half-mile pivot system generally runs $70,000, or about $218 an acre.
In addition to price, there are some barriers that make drip less effective than pivot systems or other methods. Rolling terrain may present a challenge to establishing equal water pressure, and fields often need to be subdivided, which ups the cost. Rodent damage can be problematic; and, since the soil surface stays dry, SDI can affect seed germination.
Rick Kellison, project manager of the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation (TAWC), did his own comparison between methods with more cost-effective results. Three fields utilized drip. The other three used LEPA center pivots, outfitted with bubbler nozzles, “a sprinkler that delivers water straight to the soil in a narrow band, reducing the propensity for wind drift or evaporation,” Kellison explains.
According to Kellison, the amount of water used in SDI and LEPA was the same. At the trial’s conclusion, the corn yield from SDI was slightly higher, but, Kellison says, it was only “a half-bushel of a … difference in yield.”
“The ground was so steep you couldn’t stand up on it,” says Thornton Tweedy about some of the railroad and power line right-of-ways he formerly cut and helped maintain. “You had to be careful, or you could roll a tractor, or worse. You had to know what you were doing and you had to have the right tractor.”
For Tweedy, there was no better machine for such work than Massey Ferguson, when properly configured and equipped. “Massey [tractors] are the best thing built for right-of-ways,” he says. “They hug the ground good, got stability and are compact. They got a lot of power in a little tractor. They’re ahead of all the rest.”
That experience was one of the reasons Tweedy, who now runs a cattle operation in Arkansas, was asked to demo a new Massey Ferguson® 4708. The tractor is one of the models from the new 4700 Series, which is quite possibly the most rigorously tested machine in AGCO history. Engineers and farmers put the series through its paces in some 36,000 hours of testing in oftentimes brutal conditions, in locales as far-flung as southern Zambia, Brazil, Turkey, China and the desert heat of Arizona.
So, as the new series was about to be rolled out in North America, we asked a few North American farmers for their thoughts on the tractors. Here’s some of what Tweedy had to say:
“I spent one afternoon putting up hay, and that tractor goes just as fast backward as it will forward. That’s nice if you’re loading hay or something. You’re not crawling when you’re backing up. It got the job done.”
“It’s got a comfortable ride too,” says Tweedy, “and it’s got power. I pulled a 10-foot rotary conditioner, no problem.”
Tweedy also used the MF4708 to finish a low-water bridge on some of his new land. He’d hired a bulldozer to do the work, but it and its operator had to leave before the job was finished. “So, I just used that Massey and it worked great. We were dumping riprap in the creek and gravel along the bank, using a loader.
“I tell you, that tractor had plenty of hydraulic power. There ain’t nothing slow about it. It also had plenty of power to the ground and traction on the bank and in the creek.” And like the tractors Tweedy once used maintaining right-of-ways, the MF4708, he says, “was stable. Whether it was carrying bales or that riprap, I had no problem steering or feeling unsteady.
“It’s operator-friendly,” continues Tweedy, “and easy to use. It’s a fine tractor.”
On the southwest shore of Florida’s giant Lake Okeechobee, U.S. Sugar grows cane on as much as 200,000 acres in a given year. Based in Clewiston, the company processes every bit of its harvest into granulated sugar, molasses and liquid sweetener, all at one plant.
That harvest is meticulously planned, because it has to be. Unlike corn, soybeans or wheat, which can be safely stored for months, sugar cane needs to be processed within 7.5 hours from the time it is cut.
As a result, U.S. Sugar’s cane harvest is timed to cut just enough cane to supply a steady stream of product to be processed without delay. Harvest, which generally begins in October, will continue well into April and runs 24 hours per day, weather permitting.
With such logistical demands, the company, like any agricultural operation, picks its partners carefully. This past year, U.S. Sugar, along with one of its contractors, Glades Planting LLC, used no fewer than 52 tractors from AGCO to help put sweetener on tables worldwide. Between last October into this coming April, U.S. Sugar leased 20 MF7622s that will haul heavy wagons loaded with sugar cane from the fields to rail car elevator collections points.
“When you look at our operation, we put 3,500 hours on a tractor in a season,” says Heather Banky, managing director of grower relations, fleet & special projects. “You don’t see that happen in three or four years in other businesses.
U.S. Sugar is on its second year using the MF7622. The reviews are glowing. “They pull really well,” says Juan Cervera, U.S. Sugar’s harvest operations manager. “They pull better than the John Deeres of the same size. The operators like them. They are comfortable.”
Glades Planting contracts with U.S. Sugar to plant cane, spray crop-protection chemicals and apply fertilizer. In 2015 they leased eight MF5612s, eight MF5613s, and 16 Challenger® MT465B tractors. Like U.S. Sugar, they leased the machinery from Kelly Tractor in Clewiston.
“The biggest thing is to be able to support the tractor,” says Trey Dyess, co-owner of Glade Planting. “And we have to say Kelly Tractor does a really good job.” Dyess and partners also own two of AGCO’s RoGator® sprayers, an RG1100 and an RG900.
U.S. Sugar depends on Kelly as well and, as with Glades, the commitment from Kelly Tractor is solid. “They have to be running all the time,” says Clayton Jones of Kelly Tractor. “Any downtime is expensive. They depend on our parts department, and we stay pretty stocked up. We are on call 24 hours per day.”
A pasture sits empty, virtually devoid of anything living, unless you count the grasses, which went dormant months ago as winter set in. While it’s minus 16 Celsius—a relatively balmy winter temperature for Northern Alberta—the wind is howling at about 50 kph and shooting cold like darts into any exposed skin.
Even the cattle up here don’t venture into the open. They choose instead the shelter offered by a sizable stand of poplar and spruce trees. That is, until they hear the tractor.
Like some sort of dinner bell, the sound of the engine bounces off the frosted landscape and calls the cows from the bush. Some 600 cows and a few calves—just one group from a herd that numbers as much as 11,000—barrel forth and line up, ready for mealtime, before they head back to the refuge of the trees.
The Cattlemen who raise them, Chris Sloan and his brother Frankie, and their father, Frank, run Sloan Cattle Company, a cow/calf operation north of St. Paul, Alberta. With some 30,000 acres owned or managed by them, they believe their ranch is among the 20 largest such concerns in Canada.
Comparisons aside, theirs is a demanding job. The Sloans’ pastureland is spread over some 130 km, while the land on which they grow hay—producing as much as 35,000 round bales in years past—is as far away as 150 km.
“One of the challenges of having [so many] cows,” says Chris, “is finding the feed for them. We fight as hard as we can to graze six months out of the year and feed six months. That’s why we make so much hay and bale so much straw,” as many as 1,000 bales a day, adds Chris. They cut and bale that hay with a combination of Massey Ferguson tractors, and Hesston windrowers and large square balers—all tough enough to handle harsh conditions and long hours in the field.
Even though prices are good now, market pressures are always a concern for ranchers, as they are for farmers. Still, says Chris, “The cattle industry really seems optimistic now.”
It’s a lifestyle the three Sloans absolutely love. “I like working with these two and seeing them grow up on the farm,” says Frank about his sons. “And it’s an awful nice sight to see 650 cows lining up, eating their oats behind a spreader. There’s satisfaction in knowing that you’ve done that … that you’ve raised that food for the whole world.”
The last three combines that Erle Brewer has owned have all been traded back to Shoal Lake Farm Equipment shortly after the warranty expired … which means Brewer hasn’t had to worry much about repairs. However, that doesn’t mean the Hamiota, Manitoba, farmer is any less diligent about end-of-season maintenance and inspection.
With 2,500 acres of canola, oats, wheat and barley to harvest each year, the Massey Ferguson® Model 9560 he currently owns gets a good workout by the time harvest season is finished. Hence, the first thing he does before putting the machine away for the winter is thoroughly clean and check it over for needed repairs.
“I go over all the usual things, like checking the belts and chains, and making a list of any repairs that need to be made,” he says. “I can still do a lot of mechanical repairs myself; but with all the electronics on combines these days, I hate to get too far past the warranty. Fortunately, I haven’t had many problems to worry about since I try to keep fairly new machines. Keeping them clean and properly maintained just makes harvest that much more trouble-free.”
Trading in combines just after the warranty expires is a terrific approach to managing a fleet. However, as Brewer notes, it doesn’t eliminate the need for regular maintenance. So, to help farm equipment owners develop or enhance their own system and maximize uptime, FarmLife is offering a series of maintenance checklists.
Check out the latest we’ve crafted with the help of farmers and AGCO dealership and corporate personnel. Also, see parts one and two in the series—on balers and tractors.
For more, see http://www.myfarmlife.com/advantage/dont-wait-for-a-harvest-breakdown/ or visit the maintenance series from FarmLife, our exclusive customer magazine, at http://www.myfarmlife.com/maintenance/.