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Growing more with less water

Matt Terrell
Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyEagle County Conservation District tour participants look at a center-pivot irrigation system Thursday on land owned by the Nottinghams. Weed removal, irrigation and water conservation were discussed on the tour.
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EAGLE COUNTY ” Crawling through the pastures at the Albertson Cattle Company in Burns, high above the Colorado River and on the edge of the Flat Tops Wilderness, is a 900-foot long sprinkler system that looks like a giant robotic caterpillar.

The caterpillar takes it time, slowly inching through about 80 acres of grass on big black wheels. Dozens of spray nozzles hang off its belly, and a large water gun is perched on its head. This crawling irrigation system is designed to apply the perfect amount of water so the grass can grow, be cut down and turned to hay without waste. It all works by gravity.

Just two years ago, these 80 acres of pasture were regularly flooded with inches of water to get the grass growing. When you flood fields, a lot more water is used than what the grass actually needs to grow.



Now, two “gravity-fed pivots,” or crawling sprinkler systems, do the irrigating. These “pivots” use about 70 percent less water than flooding but end up producing more hay than ever.

“The productivity is getting close to double what we used to do,” said Kevin Wahlert, a rancher at Albertson Cattle Company.



Flooding pastures is still the norm, but water-saving irrigation systems like these are slowly becoming more common on ranches.

You’ll find two “pivot” irrigation systems, spanning nearly a mile in length together, on the Nottingham ranch, which has been using them for about six years. You’ll find what’s called a “side roll” irrigation sprinkler on the Wurtsmith Ranch, which works a little differently, but still uses a lot less water than flooding.

The problem is that these water-saving irrigation systems are expensive. They also require breaking with tradition, and getting ranchers to change their proven, still-working methods can be tough to do, said Callie Hendrickson, a conservation specialist with the Colorado State Conservation Board.



Sometimes, alll it takes is some education and a little word-of-mouth advertising to get people going in the right direction, Hendrickson said.

When ranchers see that new irrigation systems can save water, bump up production and cut down the need for hired help, many change their minds,

“You get a couple guys talking about the huge benefits ” less labor and better production ” and when the other land owners watch how it works from a distance, then you’ll see more of them using it,” Hendrickson said.

Groups like the Eagle County Conservation District are helping land owners see the benefits of conservation, and provide incentives to jump-start conservation projects, said Charles Houser, a board member on the Eagle County Conservation District.

The conservation district helps land owners find grants, matching funds and technical assistance through groups like the National Resource Conservation Service.

Because the conservation efforts, like new irrigation systems, can be so expensive, incentives and matching funds are a good way to get ranchers on board, Hendrickson said.

There are never mandates, and no one is ever required to change their ways. But, they want people to know there are routes to save money.

“We want to encourage other people, other land owners, to participate in conservation activities,” Hauser said.

The district recently took a busload of people on a conservation “tour” to show conservation practices on ranches like the Nottingham’s in practice.

Weeds

The conservation district doesn’t just help with irrigation ” it also promotes the control of noxious weeds, which suck up water and push out other species of plants that wildlife eat.

Oxeye Daisy for instance, which isn’t native to Colorado, is unpalatable for wildlife and pushes out other edible grasses loved by deer and elk. The Division of Wildlife and other federal groups will help ranchers pay for removal, but it can still be a hard sell.

“Some just don’t see the benefit of it, and that’s their choice,” Hendrickson said.

Other places though, you can see where ranchers have taken a big steps to remove noxious weeds. Recently, about 640 acres of fields owned by the Nottinghams underwent treatment for Oxeye Daisy.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 970-748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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