The Art of Irrigating

Mosquitoes buzzing, sweat dripping from the brow under the rim of a cowboy hat, shovel over the shoulder and black rubber irrigating boots almost to the knees is the description of a rancher while irrigating. The rancher can be seen swatting at the mosquitoes so there is a path through the mosquitoes to breathe and see. The old ranchers had a saying which was “you have to have mosquitoes to grow hay.” This referenced the fact both hay and mosquitoes require water and heat.

Rancher Jonita Sommers discusses irrigating native grass pastures in the Green River Valley of Wyoming, which can be used for pastureland or for hay production.
Rancher Albert Sommers heads out to flood irrigate his native grass pastures to grow hay. He will use the hay to feed his cattle through the winter when the rangeland is covered with snow.

Some time in May, the head gates are opened on the creeks and rivers in the Green River Valley so the water can run down the irrigation ditches to flood irrigate the meadows on the ranches.  The next hay crop needs to be grown so the cattle can be fed in the winter.

Rancher Jonita Sommers discusses irrigating native grass pastures in the Green River Valley of Wyoming, which can be used for pastureland or for hay production.
Head gates control when and how much water is used for irrigation.

Water rights were filed on by the early homesteaders. The territorial officials, if the water was filed before statehood in 1890, and the Wyoming State Engineer, if after statehood in 1890, were the officials issuing the amount of water to irrigate the number of acres a homesteader had indicated. One cubic feet per second (CFS) of water was allotted per 70 acres with the initial water right, then the state eventually allowed another CFS per 70 acres if there was enough water in the river or creek.  Water is allotted from the stream according to the oldest water right having the first right to use the water.

Rancher Jonita Sommers discusses irrigating native grass pastures in the Green River Valley of Wyoming, which can be used for pastureland or for hay production.
The head gates are manually opened and closed. Legal water rights determine how much water the user is allocated.

Rancher Jonita Sommers discusses irrigating native grass pastures in the Green River Valley of Wyoming, which can be used for pastureland or for hay production.

The ditches had to be surveyed and then built. The homesteaders used teams and fresnos to dig the ditches. Later, draglines were used to work on the ditches. Today, trackhoes are used to clean and repair the ditches.

Rancher Jonita Sommers discusses irrigating native grass pastures in the Green River Valley of Wyoming, which can be used for pastureland or for hay production.
Albert Sommers “changes” his irrigation water by moving man-made dams to provide moisture throughout his hay fields.

Once the water is let down the main irrigation ditches from the head gates on the rivers and creeks, it has to be let out into the scatter ditches. From the scatter ditches, the water is spread over the meadow.  Little dams and dikes are built to send the water everywhere. This is an art, knowing how to get the water to flow over the land.  A good irrigator knows every inch of his land and how the water moves on it. This type of irrigation is called flood irrigation.

Rancher Jonita Sommers discusses irrigating native grass pastures in the Green River Valley of Wyoming, which can be used for pastureland or for hay production.
Albert uses “flood irrigation”. It is called flood irrigation because the water is dispersed without using pivots, side rolls or other mechanized means. Flood irrigators may also use metal tubes and plastic pipe.

The native-grass hay can be flood irrigated all the time. Planted crops, such as alfalfa, require the water put on and then turned off for a few days and then turned back on. Not a lot of alfalfa is grown in the Green River Valley because of the short growing season. It is very hard to get two crops, or “cuttings”, of hay in the Green River Valley because the growing season is just not long enough.

Rancher Jonita Sommers discusses irrigating native grass pastures in the Green River Valley of Wyoming, which can be used for pastureland or for hay production.
The Sommers irrigate native-grass hay in their fields. The native-grass hay grows better than planted crops, like alfalfa, in the high elevation with such a short growing season.

When the grass top is waist high and the under growth is to the knee, the irrigator has had a very successful season. There has been plenty of water and hot weather. A rain storm now and then really helps the grass to grow even though the grass has irrigation water on it. This is due to the nitrogen that is delivered in a rainstorm to the ground below, and nitrogen aids the growth of grass.

Rancher Jonita Sommers discusses irrigating native grass pastures in the Green River Valley of Wyoming, which can be used for pastureland or for hay production.
When Albert finishes irrigating his meadows, he will cut and bale the grass for use as hay feed for his cattle through the winter months.

From RealRancher Jonita Sommers, Sommers Ranch – Pinedale, Wyo.

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