Gallatin River Water- The Life Blood of Local Agriculture Part I

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Headgate for Upper Creamery Ditch at the bridge on Amsterdam Road, looking north (Photos by Lara Seeburg)

(August 10, 2018) Written by Susan Duncan, GGWC Board Member and Co-Owner Duncan Farm – Homestead Beef – Irrigation water from the West Gallatin River is the life blood of Duncan Farm- Homestead Beef. My husband Richard and I built this self-contained grass- fed beef operation on 76 acres of irrigated land between Belgrade and Manhattan just south of 1-90 since 1979. We depend on irrigation water from the West Gallatin River to grow a year-round feed supply to support our herd of 75 Irish Dexter cattle. Our cattle eat our hay, our pasture, trace mineral salt, and water for their entire life cycle. We sell our steers for local grass-fed beef. Our cattle have been fed this way since 1993 – 25 years.

Our irrigation water is diverted from the West Gallatin River at the northeast corner of Erwin Bridge on Amsterdam Road. The water travels by Upper Creamery Ditch northward on the east side of the river – 4 miles – and ends at Interstate 90. Our ditch crosses properties of 35 landowners.  Only 15 landowners hold water rights to use water out of the ditch and pay assessments to maintain it. Upper Creamery Ditch carries up to 800 miner’s inches of water – 20 cfs. Seventy percent of the water rights have a priority date of 1890 or earlier. We have 1888 and 1872 water rights on our place. Our neighbors on either side have 1865 rights – part of the third oldest right on the West Gallatin.

We divert water for our farm through the Allsop Branch of the Upper Creamery Ditch. It is a side canal branching off the main ditch going north and east. We pay a yearly assessment for maintenance of the main ditch and all costs and labor for maintenance on the mile long Allsop Branch.

The ditch finally reaches our property and goes about 900 feet to our irrigation pump – a 1964 Case tractor engine on a hay wagon that runs on propane. We have no electricity at the east end of our property – a half mile from the house. The propane truck comes once a week to fill a 500 gallon tank. The pump draws water from a screened sump on the ditch. It fills an 8” diameter mainline going east-west almost a half mile and another mainline going north-south along the east side of the ditch for about 1200 feet. Three wheel- lines, attached to the mainlines at valves along its length, water the hay fields and some pastures. We produce about 100 tons of grass/alfalfa hay from 34 acres in two cuttings – our winter feed supply from November to June.

We have two intensive grazing pasture systems of 7-8 pastures (each  2.5 acres in size, separated by electric fence) on 36 acres: One system for each bull and his entourage of cows, calves, and steers – about 25-30 head per group. Each herd rotates through these pastures from June 1 to November 1 at 5-7 day intervals. We estimate we get another 100 tons of summer feed off these pastures with irrigation and managed grazing.

We also use handlines – 30 foot pieces of aluminum pipe strung together. These are attached to valves on the mainlines as a water source. The longest handline is 1200 feet (40 pieces of pipe.) There are up to 4-5 handlines in use at once. We use one handline for every two (2.5 acre) intensive grazing pastures. My husband moves the pipe and the wheel-lines every 12-24 hours – 8 to10 hours a day of labor during irrigation season.  

The herd on the 1-90 pastures drink out of the ditch.  The herd on the pastures behind the barn come into the corral for water. We also have 13 head of cows on 7 acres of leased pasture a quarter mile from the house. They drink from the main branch of the Upper Creamery Ditch. Our cows with calves need 10 gallons of water a day, each.

Up until July 26, 2018 at 4PM we had a ditch full of water to irrigate and water our stock. Then the river level dropped. By 7PM the water in the ditch had dropped to about an inch deep: Not enough to turn on the pump and barely enough for the cows on pasture to get a drink. As of July 30, 2018, there is enough water for the cows to drink but not enough to irrigate.

What does that mean for our farm and our cows? Or the 700 acres of irrigated ground on our ditch? Disaster? Or is this fixable? I really don’t know, yet.

Is this what “drought” looks like?  Then farmers on the West Gallatin face the threat of “drought” almost every year.

See Part II  coming soon.

Headgate for Allsop Branch of the Upper Creamery Ditch – culvert on right, main channel continues to left. Flow is regulated by putting boards in the brackets along the front of the culvert opening

Allsop Branch of the Upper Creamery Ditch as it enters Duncan Farm -looking south toward the headgate.


Propane Irrigation Pump on Duncan Farm

Screened sump where the water is pumped out of the ditch to fill mainlines on Duncan Farm. In the background to left is handline squirting water on the East Hayfield next to the I-90 fenceline.


How the wheel line or hand line gets water: A black hose (right) attaches to a valve (center, with handle) attached to an 8 inch diameter mainline (silver pipe in the grass).


The result is water for the wheel line – East Hayfield, by I-90 just starting to re-grow after 1st cutting.

Dexter calves from 2018 out on pasture with their mothers, steers, and a bull named Kazzam. Orange tags – boys. Blue tags- girls. Yearling heifer D8D Molly in the background will be bred on pasture and have her first calf next spring.