High Plains crop and livestock producers have known for years that groundwater sources from the mammoth Ogallala Aquifer – lifeblood of the region’s irrigation – are shrinking. And for decades, they’ve been using data from vital university and private research to immensely improve their water use efficiency for cotton, corn, wheat, sorghum, forage and other crop production.
They didn’t need a recent NBC News report on the dreadful fate of the Ogallala to remind them that they must start thinking about reducing irrigation – or else. Through use of low-pressure center pivot nozzles, Low Energy Precision Application (LEPA) systems and highly proven subsurface drip irrigation techniques, farmers in the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles, Texas South Plains, western Kansas and eastern New Mexico are able to stretch irrigation to the max.
Water use efficiency (WUE) is typically 95% or higher. Water goes to roots. It isn’t eroded away through runoff or the wind. During peak production periods, the region’s efficiency-minded irrigation helps growers replenish evapotranspiration (ET) as cost-effectively as possible.
In limited irrigation situations, farmers have learned to designate water flow to one field’s production, while another must get by on less water. Without using LEPA, low-pressure and drip, it wouldn’t be possible.
Thomas Marek, Texas A&M AgriLife ag engineer at the Amarillo and Etter, Texas research centers, says through use of advanced irrigation techniques, today’s growers can produce 40% more corn using 60% less water than farmers did in the 1980s.
Marek was among those speaking during the 75th anniversary of the USDA ARS Conservation & Production Research Laboratory outside Amarillo near Bushland. A national leader in dryland farming research and irrigation management research, the center’s motto is “Saving Soil and Water Since 1938.”
Farmers have also used information from AgriLife irrigation research in Lubbock, Halfway and Lamesa to fine-tune irrigation. Drip is part of the reason many growers have pushed cotton yields above 2,000 pounds per acre. And with drip, there is zero evaporation and very little if any runoff. Recent Panhandle research is looking at how growers can grow 200-bushel corn with 12 inches of irrigation.
Similar research by Kansas State University has also helped irrigators improve their yields using much less water. Kansas has strict regulations on how much water is allotted to farmers. And several Texas underground water district boards have also stepped up with irrigation restrictions.
Even with better irrigation efficiency, a K-State study indicates that 69% of the Ogallala will be drained in the next five decades. “I think it’s generally understood that the groundwater levels are going down and that at some point in the future groundwater pumping rates are going to have to decrease,” said study lead author David Steward, a K-State professor of civil engineering, in a statement reported by NBC. “However, there are lots of questions about how long the water will last, how long the aquifer will take to refill and what society can do.”
Well, farmers have already done a lot. Yet, they know they must forever strive to improve their irrigation efficiency. Of course, much will depend on help from Mother Nature in an area that averages less than 20 inches of precipitation annually. More droughts like those in 2011 and 2012 will put even more pressure on groundwater.
Farmer ingenuity will be called upon even more. And count on these masters of water conservation to make even more limited water work.
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Larry Stalcup is the editor of AgFax Southwest Cotton and associate editor of AgFax Peanuts. A veteran ag writer and editor, he is based in Amarillo, Texas.