The WNC CRAFT farmer network visited Bluebird Farm where Marie and William have been running raising vegetables and livestock for going on ten years. They raise hogs, piglets, laying hens, and beef cattle in addition to managing 3.5 acres of diversified vegetable production. We spent the day learning from their experiences with irrigating vegetables and livestock, and how that has affected their farm planning over the years.
After working on several farms across the country, Marie and William considered where they wanted to start their own farm. They ultimately returned to Marie’s hometown of Morganton, NC because they had access to farmland to lease from a family friend that was cheap, had some infrastructure in place, and an ample water source. And, as William put it, irrigation is the cheapest insurance you can have on a farm. Silver Creek borders the farm and has provided reliable irrigation for farmers on the land for decades.
Water management and movement on the farm has been on their minds a lot the last few years. Just last year they recorded 75 inches of rain on the farm but saw drought conditions in their hoop houses. Growing space that is undercover still needs watering even when it’s raining. With changing and erratic weather patterns due to climate change, having a solid system in place for irrigating vegetable and livestock production makes sure they have water where and when they need it on the farm.
Creek vs. Well Water for Irrigating
While they’ve had success irrigating from the Silver Creek, it has presented some challenges over the years. Based on how the creek water is running the intake to the pump can easily become clogged with silt, crawdad claws, leaves, and debris. Or, if the intake doesn’t stay submerged, air may get in the system stopping the pump from working. Stopping to fix the pump can be a time-consuming interruption to work day. It’s especially unpleasant once fall and winter hit for the one who draws the shortest straw and has to dip into the cold creek to clear the intake. For Marie and William, the well offers a reliable and clean water source that won’t require as much maintenance day-to-day for irrigating vegetables and livestock.
Getting a Well
However, it was a major investment and took several years to finally secure an AgWRAP cost share through NC Soil & Water. The well had just been finished and hooked up the week of the farm tour, too! The well diggers hit were able to get a 12 gallon per minute water flow at 540 ft. They hit water so far down, that they had to get a larger 3hp pump that is capable of lifting water up 540 ft to the surface.
Twelve gallons/minute refers to how fast the pump can refill the tube. With that flow level, they will be able to irrigate 12 100 ft. beds at a time, and an average of 3 drip lines/bed. Which means that each bed will be irrigated at a rate of 1 gallon/minute. Once they crunched some numbers they know that by watering each bed for 1.5 hrs 4 times a week they will be providing their plants with 1 inch of rain/week. See how they did their calculations here.
Pigs drink about 5 gal/day of water, and cows can drink up to 30 gal/day. So it’s safe to say that you need to have a good system for maintaining an ample supply of water that is easily accessible to your livestock and you. If animals are thirsty or too hot they won’t eat, and if they don’t eat they don’t grow, Marie pointed out. For the pigs, they’ve set up a system where they can pump water from the creek (or the well) to a large tank that then uses gravity to supply water to the pigs.
Also, pigs can’t sweat to cool off, so you have to make sure they have enough water for a wallow, in addition to drinking water. To create the wallow, they give them just enough water so that it creates mud and the pigs and spread it on their skin. They have not automated much of their watering system. A mister for the wallow is set up on a timer and will shut off the water after a set amount of time. The pigs drink from large barrels that are moderated automatically by a float valve at the top of the barrel and keep it from overflowing. They still have to double check daily to make sure everything is flowing as it should.
William and Marie know that if they want to be able to pull as many veggies each week as possible, then they can’t rely on rain as the sole water source. Irrigation for their vegetables is a smart investment. Drip irrigation is their most common strategy for irrigation on the farm. They use overhead sprinklers when germinating crops that are direct seeded, like carrots. Because they have loamy soil, that is on the sandy side it is not great at holding moisture. Drip tape allows them to make sure the plants are getting water right where they need it in the bed.
On average, each bed in the field gets 3 lines of drip, if they are under plastic they get 2 lines. Under the hoop houses, each bed gets 4 lines of drip because those crops never get additional rain. They also use the drip tape lines to put liquid fertilizer on all the beds about once a week, aka fertigate. When it’s dry, irrigating vegetables is a full-time job. When Marie dug into a bed and revealed moist soil just a few inches down the fruit of their labors was evident.
When irrigating vegetables and livestock there are a whole host of factors that a farmer must consider. We are grateful to Marie and William for walking us through their process and how they make water management decisions on their farm. Looking forward to next time!
Now is the time to join CRAFT for 2019! WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers, and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. For more information or to join, click here. Or contact Sera Deva, Farmer Programs Associate (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Author: Cameron Farlow
Cameron Farlow is the Executive Director of Organic Growers School. Hailing from Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, she has now made her home in Western NC. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University. She also brings experience in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. In addition to her work with OGS, Cameron is a dancer, baker and avid adventurer.