Neibling: 'There are certain areas like this where it may make perfect sense'
By JOHN O'CONNELL
ABERDEEN, Idaho -- Growers in eastern Idaho's Pleasant Valley area are accustomed to puzzled expressions when they discuss how they're pulling out pivots in favor of old-fashioned wheel lines.
Throughout most of the country, pivots continue to grow at the expense of other types of irrigation.
In Pleasant Valley, however, several of the major growers have become convinced wheel lines are worth the added labor because they offer the best yield potential for their unique field conditions.
"We're still bidding jobs to take more pivots out and put more wheel lines in," said Chuck Buchta, manager of Knudsen Irrigation in Aberdeen. "As far as I know, this is the only area in the country where that's happened."
About seven years ago, Knudsen bought out a struggling California wheel line brand called Thunderbird, which utilizes an end-driven propulsion system. He moved the plant to American Falls, Idaho, and sales have grown steadily.
"This last year, I've sold 200 wheel lines, and I'd say 40 to 60 of them replaced pivots," Buchta said.
Buchta believes pivots remain the best choice for sandy soils as they cover ground and put out water more quickly.
However, in heavy silt-loam soils common to Pleasant Valley, University of Idaho Extension irrigation specialist Howard Neibling said slower-applying wheel lines penetrate deeper, banking moisture for hot spells. Wheel lines can also push salts beneath plant root zones where they can't disrupt nutrient absorption.
Though Neibling doesn't foresee an industrywide shift back to wheel lines, he said they retain niches.
"There are certain areas like this where it may make perfect sense to continue to use the wheel lines because of soils, crops, overall tradition and what works best for those particular growers," Neibling said.
Buchta said rising Pleasant Valley land values have also driven the shift as growers can't afford yield reductions on field corners missed by pivots.
Grower Ritchey Toevs has removed three pivots this winter.
"They worked OK, but it just seems like we raise better crops with wheel lines here," Toevs said.
Toevs said wheel lines use higher pressure and more power than pivots but have significantly improved his sugar beet and alfalfa yields. Moving wheel lines also provides summer labor for his workers so he can keep the same skilled crews for planting and harvest. A drawback, he said, is that corn can't be planted under wheel lines.
"I don't know of anybody replacing wheel lines with pivots here anymore. Ten years ago, it was different," Toevs said.
Grower Kim Wahlen also recently replaced three pivots with wheel lines. On heavy soils, Wahlen has found wheel lines improve potato yields slightly and sugar beet yields substantially. Wahlen said modern wheel lines don't tend to leak and require less maintenance.
"We're probably kind of a weird area, but I do think our area has about as high a land value as there is in Idaho," Wahlen said.
Wahlen said there's still a place for pivots in the valley, especially on sandy soils. He said his brother, Val, prefers pivots.