Firms Replace Hundreds of Pivots Lightning Quick

It was such a huge job accomplished so quickly that even the people involved seem amazed when they describe the effort.

A June 14 storm sent a pivot-flipping wall of wind across south-central Nebraska. Customers of four Holdrege pivot irrigation dealers had roughly 850 irrigation systems damaged or destroyed in Phelps, Kearney, Harlan and Franklin counties.

After six weeks of incredibly long hours of hard work by the dealers’ employees and contracted demolition and construction crews from other states, nearly every farmer who still had a crop standing also had an operational pivot.

“We had everybody up and running by the 31st of July who needed to be running,” said Holdrege Irrigation Sales Manager Scott Fecht, who accurately estimated in early July that his Reinke customers had 250 to 270 inoperable pivots.

Of that total, 190 new systems were installed and others were repaired. “That’s a whole fiscal year of business for us in about six weeks,” he said.

Holdrege Irrigation used 14 contracted crews of four to five people each. Fecht said his company normally uses contractors for new builds so that the 60 to 70 local employees can focus on pivot maintenance and repairs.

“It was tense,” he said. “We looked at one another the day after that storm and had no idea how we were gonna do this.”

Central Valley Irrigation owner Monty Vonasek said his local and contracted crews dealt with about 260 pivots damaged June 14, plus another 15 battered by a July 9 hailstorm in eastern Sherman, Buffalo and Kearney counties.

All Central Valley customers with crops to water after the June storm — there was a large area of nearly 100 percent hail damage southwest of Holdrege — had operational pivots by early August. Vonasek said the focus then turned to pivots on hailed-out fields where farmers needed to irrigate cover crops.

Some Holdrege-area fields were in Mother Nature’s cross hairs throughout the growing season, Vonasek said, with some hit by storms up to five times without total losses. Those crops must be harvested before farmers can settle their losses with insurance carriers.

There have been similar issues with insurance covering pivots.

“We still have not heard from a lot of insurance companies on the salvage, who owns the salvage,” Vonasek said, which is why broken pivots remain in some fields. “We’re gonna have to contend with this before spring planting.”

Toby Clayton of Husker Irrigation, which saw 150 to 200 of its Zimmatic systems damaged or destroyed, said some farmers with totaled crop fields are just now discovering their pivots’ bent pipes and leaks.

His crews had installed 70 new pivots by the end of July. He said repairs were started the Monday after the storm with the help of seven tear-down and seven to eight construction crews, including some from Kansas, Utah and Texas.

Derek Wagner of Wagner’s Irrigation said his T-L customers had 120 damaged pivots, including 38 that had to be replaced immediately. “We are all caught up except for the ones below Harlan Lake that were on (Nebraska Bostwick) canal water and didn’t have water,” he said.

Contractors, including a group of 40 from a Utah company, did the demolition and construction, while Wagner’s team of 16 full-time employees got the pivots operational.

The Holdrege dealers said it was critical that the same storm systems that brought devastating storms also delivered moisture. That slowed pivot construction, but kept crops watered.

Holdrege Irrigation’s Fecht said that if the 2014 growing season had been as hot and dry as 2013, “we probably would have lost 75 percent of the corn and beans.”

Going forward
Pivot construction season normally is from after harvest until spring planting, so the sales season for new 2015 systems unrelated to the storms is starting now.

The dealers expect new pivot orders to be down significantly. They said their employees will spend a lot of time over the winter months building replacement pivots from good parts salvaged from the storm-damaged systems.

“Most of that is due to lower commodity prices,” Husker Irrigation’s Clayton said about the decline in orders.

Vonasek said Central Valley had 70 new pivot installations last year. But that was before Congress delayed passage of a new farm bill, leaving uncertainty about future funding for Environmental Quality Incentive Program grants to help farmers change from gravity irrigation to more conservation friendly pivots.

He’ll be happy to see 10 EQIP-related projects this year.

There also were more pivot orders before farmers faced the high costs of storm damage to crops, grain bins and existing pivot systems at the same time grain prices plunged. Vonasek said crop insurance costs also will be higher because of all the 2014 claims.

“It’s what we’ve been waiting for the past four years,” Wagner said about a slowdown. “Now, maybe it will be too slow.”

What a summer
When asked to summarize the summer, he said, “It’s one I would never want to go through again, I’ll tell you that.”

“Well, it was overwhelming,” Clayton said. “I’m thankful we had rain. It slowed our progress, but it did relieve some emergency situations.”

He also is grateful there were no serious injuries during the long days working under pressure and around dangerous machinery and equipment. “That was our biggest concern,” Clayton said, adding that safety was emphasized before any of his crews headed to the fields after the June 14 storm.

Vonasek said an expected slow summer for Central Valley became one of his business’ most intense times.

“It would have been nice if we could have taken this workload and stretched it out over the next two to three years,” he said. “But that’s just not the nature of the beast.”

Fecht’s comment makes it clear he’ll carry 2014 summer memories around for a long time.

“I hope and pray when I go to church on Sundays that I never see anything like this again,” he said. “It’s just too much.”

Source: Lori Potter, Kearney Hub

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