With little water, farmers consider new irrigation plans

SHOREHAM — At 2 p.m. on a recent sunny afternoon, a group of 20 farmers stood around a giant metal reel, which pulled a hulking irrigation gun 1,300 feet toward them as it turned. The gun showered water onto the otherwise dry Elysian Fields, owned by Joe and Kathleen Hescock, which were certified organic in 1998.
The farmers were there to learn about something new for many of them — irrigating pastures where their cows graze.
Bruce Howlett, a soil conservationist from the National Resources Conservation Service and an attendee at the Shoreham workshop, said that pasture irrigation is somewhat rare. But this summer has seen below average rainfall.
National Weather Service data shows that precipitation in Burlington has been below normal levels since June 7. A normal amount of rainfall in the past 90 days would be about 275 mm (10.8 inches), but records show that Northwestern Vermont has got only a little less than 200 mm (7.5 inches).
At the Aug. 4 workshop, Joe Hescock explained the water spraying apparatus to the other farmers — how it works, what kind of water source it requires, how much it costs — because most other farmers don’t own irrigation systems anything like this.
The group gathered for a tutorial that is part of an on-farm workshop series organized by UVM’s Extension Program and the Northeastern Organic Farming Association.
Some members of the farming group were drawn to this workshop in particular to find out if a similar system might work for their own farms.
The system is designed to water pastures. While most farmers consistently water their crops — fruit, vegetables, etc. — most do not water the areas where cows graze. The Hescocks own about 300 dairy cows and 325 heifers, and in order to keep up with the herds’ demands, the farm must produce grass and grain constantly.
This summer, many dairy farmers are struggling to keep up. Most rely solely on rain to water their grazing pastures. With southeastern Vermont in a moderate drought, and the rest of the state feeling the lack of rain, dairy farmers have suffered more than most agricultural producers.
The NRCS’s Howlett said that managing irrigation and grazing takes some planning.
“On the one hand it’s really simple. Cows were born to graze,” he said. “But there’s a lot of complexity to it, and to do it well, it takes a lot of management.”USDA SOIL CONSERVATIONIST Bruce Howlett demonstrates the use of a stick that measures the density and height of grazing grass and can help farmers determine when it is best to move grazing animals out of a pasture.
This complexity is mainly based on the herd’s movement. Organic farmers like the Hescocks move the cows from pasture to pasture, which gives each field time to regrow. The delicate balance tips, though, if a farmer moves the herd through pastures too quickly, or if there isn’t enough water to support continuous movement.
The Hescock farm backs up to Lake Champlain, an easily accessible source that supplies water to the traveling gun irrigation system as well as a smaller system comprised of “pods.”
The pods are sets of sprinklers connected through a main line. Each sprinkler has a circular black cover, shaped like a tire, to protect it from damage from cattle and movement.
The pods are portable, and dragging them from place to place is comparable to moving a hose from one pasture to another. Kathleen Hescock says the process takes her 15 minutes.
Pods are also considerably less expensive than the traveling gun system. The installation price for the pods is estimated at just over $16,500 for a 20-acre paddock and $1,200-per-year upkeep, according to a study by UVM Extension.
While the Hescocks bought their traveling gun system used for just over $15,000, it can cost as much as $45,000 new.
Organizations like the Natural Resources Conservation Service supply financial assistance to farmers in certain situations, but right now, they do not provide funding for pasture irrigation equipment. The Hescocks funded the system privately.
“Anything that helps the cows helps our bottom line,” Kathleen said.
Joe added that since the farm obtained the irrigation systems about a month ago, he’s been happy with the results.
“The pasture’s much improved,” he said.
Workshop attendees Mark and Sarah Russell own a 90-cow dairy farm in Orwell that directly abuts Lake Champlain, and are considering installing a traveling gun system.
“I think I’ve got more questions than answers now,” Mark Russell said, noting that the Hescocks were lucky to find a used reel that was so large at its discounted price. “But (the workshop) was definitely helpful,” Sarah Russell added.
Joe Hescock says his entire operation is more efficient with the added irrigation. The milk even tastes better, he claims.
“We’re trying to feed them fresh forage, which does make good quality milk,” he said. “That’s a part of the organic story.”

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