T-L Pivots are Cowboy Compatible

Ashland, MT
With dependable irrigation we were able to produce the same amount of feed in a drought year as we could in a rainy year.

To put it bluntly, we’re cowboys,” says Jim Felton, a third generation Montana registered Angus producer. “We own T-L pivots because we understand hydraulic systems and can fix them. They’re simple and low maintenance.”

Felton’s father, Rich, installed their first T-L in 1984. They’ve since put in 6 more with the most recent going up in August of 2017. “When we went to buy this one we didn’t even price out an electric pivot,” he says. And he laughed at another company marketing a lightweight system. “Until they make lightweight water I don’t see any benefit there.”

The Feltons farm roughly 850 acres of irrigated land growing mostly forage crops for their registered Angus herd, including alfalfa and alfalfa grass hay, triticale haylage, corn silage, and some grain corn. The irrigated acres are split between the Springdale ranch in central Montana where Jim and his family develop Felton Angus Ranch yearling bulls and heifers, and the Tongue River Felton ranch near Ashland where his parents, Rich and Karol, run the cow/calf herd.

The hydraulic T-L systems are well within their comfort zone for repairs. They’ve had plenty of experience with hydraulics thanks to years of do-it-yourself repairs on their tractors and haying equipment. If they can’t do the work themselves, it’s a problem. So is a system that needs a lot of attention. The Feltons are known for raising cattle that can hold their own in rough pastures and in challenging weather without being babied. They expect the same of their irrigation system and for good reason.

“Some ranches have an owner, a farm manager, a herd manager, plus hired help. Here I’m the farm boss, the cow boss, the manager, the feed truck driver, etc. It’s just me and one hired man,” Felton explains. On any given day he’s fixing fence, spraying noxious weeds in the

pastures, checking cattle, putting up hay, and managing the irrigation. He appreciates a bare minimum of time, and money, is devoted to running and repairing his T-L irrigation pivots.

He’s seen for himself the same can’t be said for electric pivots. Two electric pivots on some rented land had them calling out the dealer for repairs on average once a week.

“You have to be an electrical engineer to fix those things and I don’t have time to learn how, so we had to call for service. Every time they came out it was around $1,000. That’s fine for absentee landowners. They don’t care. But for someone trying to make a living on the land those fees get atrocious,” Felton says.

One time at a repair shop, Felton witnessed a producer coming in for parts and they brought him out a dolly stacked with about 10 gear boxes for his electric pivots. With his T-Ls, there just aren’t that many things that can, or do, go wrong.

“Maybe they’ll get out of alignment but all I need is a 9/16th wrench and a 7/8th crescent wrench and 15 minutes later you’re ready to go,” Felton says. “The T-L pivots have been really reliable.”

He stocks a bare minimum of parts and can fix most problems himself, allowing him to keep water moving to his fields day or night, weekend or holiday. He notes if an electric pivot goes out on a Saturday afternoon he’d have to wait until Monday to call in, and in peak season a technician might make it out to the field by mid to late week. “If you really needed the water, which you do when it gets hot in the summer here, you’d be out of luck,” Felton says.

On the Springdale ranch, Felton runs four T-L pivots. One has a Precision Point control while the others have what Felton calls “Cowboy Controls” where he just hits the button and watches it go, he says. The T-Ls on his farm have a lot of slope to tackle as the fields are nestled in the foothills of the Beartooth mountains. “There were only 40 acres of flood irrigated fields when Dad bought this place in 1972. He eventually broke out about another 180 acres for irrigation. He said he picked rocks for 30 days straight,” Felton says.

It was worth the struggle as Felton says they have tripled production on the irrigated acres as opposed to raising dryland crops. The crops and the T-L pivots perform well. The constant movement of the hydraulic drives allows the T-Ls to navigate the terrain with ease while not burning through parts or getting stuck as is common for the constantly stopping and lurching forward movement of an electric pivot.

“The continuous movement was a major selling point. I’ve found when your pivot never stops moving the ruts are considerably smaller in the field and the pivots rarely get stuck,” Felton says. With an electric system it sits still and waters the track then tries to shoot forward. The wheels spin in the muddy track getting stuck and digging deeper and deeper ruts, especially in alfalfa fields that aren’t getting tilled and leveled every year.

Even movement results in even water and fertilizer distribution, too. “We get a lot of wind. When an electric system stops and the wind is blowing, there will be an area that got a lot of water and areas that didn’t get much water resulting in spoking in the field,” he says. The constant movement of the T-L combined with hose drops and i-Wob nozzles make sure more water makes it to the crop. “We used to have sprinkler heads on the top span to spray out like a wheel line, but with 30-40 mph winds we would lose a lot of water to the air. Now with the hose drops the vast majority of the water gets to the crop.”

And that water is critical, more so on years like 2017 when Montana experienced a crippling severe drought.

“With dependable irrigation we were able to produce the same amount of feed in a drought year as we could in a rainy year. That makes a guy sleep a little better at night. There’s peace of mind in knowing I can turn on the switch and get water,” he says. There’s also comfort in that his T-Ls occupy little of his time. “We farm to feed our cows, not because we like to farm. I’ve got a lot of things on my plate and getting a degree in electrical engineering to keep a pivot running or paying $1,000 to replace a switch in a tower isn’t something I have the time or money for. The T-Ls are much easier to run and fix. If you can’t fix them, you shouldn’t be farming.”