Paul Swank

Keenesburg, Colorado
I think we use less nitrogen when we ‘spoon feed’ it on through the pivot...

Paul Swank admits that he and his brother Alex didn’t know much about T-L center pivot system before last year when they purchased their first unit. The main thing they had heard was that T-L pivots aren’t electrically driven, which means they don’t have several thousand feet of copper wire that can entice copper thieves. Just a few months earlier, an electric pivot on land the brothers leased near their home base near Keenesburg, Colorado, had been stripped of all of its wiring. Plus, they knew of other farmers along Colorado’s Front Range that had pivots damaged by copper thieves. So they had no desire to go through that headache again.

Ironically, out of 6,500 acres the brothers farm in a partnership, only 300 acres are irrigated. In 2012, approximately 1,800 acres were planted to dryland wheat; another 1,000 acres were in corn, and the rest was divided between summer fallow and sunflowers, millet for bird seed and alfalfa/grass mix hay that is sold directly to horse owners. Of the irrigated acres, 100 acres are still under flood irrigation, while 200 acres are under pivot systems — one T-L and one electric pivot.

“One of our friends actually caught two guys in the act of trying to strip an electric pivot on his farm,” says Alex. “It’s become a real problem around here, partly because we’re so close to Denver and the scrap dealers where thieves find a market.”

“When we heard that T-L units were hydraulically driven, that really got our attention,” Paul adds. “After we got to checking into them a little more, we learned that they’re also known for being really reliable and that the machine is continually moving, rather than stopping and starting.

“So they kind of hit us at just the right time,” he continues. “We liked what we saw and put in our first T-L a year ago this past April.”

ven more influential on their purchase was the fact that the new pivot was being installed on the edge of Keenesburg where it was clearly visible. In fact, it’s right across the street from a school and alongside a busy paved road.

“We were flood irrigating that field at one time,” Alex explains. “But it wasn’t a good field to flood, so we actually quit irrigating it for about five years. However, after commodity prices improved, we decided to add a pivot, which has allowed us to irrigate at least twice as much of the field.”

Because of a ditch that goes across one end of the field, the T-Lis currently operated as a wiper unit that covers approximately 100 acres. Paul insists, though, that they’re still looking at options, including bridges or culverts that will allow them to take the unit full circle.

In the meantime, the brothers are still living with the effects of the copper theft on the leased farm.

“The landowner actually owned the pivot, so we didn’t experience any loss ourselves,” Paul relates. “But we did hear that his insurance company raised his rate. As a result, though, he’s asked that we always stop or move the pivot so it’s pointing toward his house when it isn’t moving … which makes it a little inconvenient.”

Unfortunately, the brothers got limited use of both pivots this year, due to drought conditions and water restrictions.

“At the beginning of the season, we were told we would have about half the available water that we did last year,” says Alex, noting that their water supply comes from reservoirs filled by snowmelt in the mountains. “So instead of cutting water across the board, we moved the stops and cut the electric pivot down to about half its coverage and werantheT-Lonjust80ofthe100 acres.”

Alex says they did average around 40 bushels per acre on dryland wheat, thanks to reserve moisture in the soil; but he says they’ll be lucky to average even 40 bushels on dryland corn this year.

“Last year, we had sunflowers under the T-L pivot because we actually went into the year with less moisture than we did this year,” Paul explains. “But then we got some good rains and came out of it. I don’t think that’s going to happen this year.”

To compensate for the dry winter, the Swanks have already reduced their corn plant population to around 27,000 plants per acre on irrigated fields and about 11,000 seeds per acre on dryland crops. They also practice no-till farming on all dryland acres and minimum tillage on irrigated fields. Finally, they apply a portion of the nitrogen on irrigated acres through the center pivot to spoon-feed the crop in response to yield potential.

“We’d like to have even more acres under pivots,” Alex concludes. “But we’ll just have to see how things go the next year or two in terms of crop prices and production. When we do add another pivot, though, I’m sure it will be a T-L,” he concludes. “We don’t have to worry about copper thieves and we know that when we push the button, it goes.”