Earlier this summer, an article in The Hutchinson News in Kansas raised a very important question for farmers to consider.
If the Ogallala aquifer becomes unviable as a water source and irrigation wells dry up across the Southern Plains, farming will be only one victim.
What will happen to the feedlots, meatpacking plants, dairies and ethanol plants that rely on irrigated corn, for example? Water availability adds about $600 million alone to the economy in southwestern Kansas, notes Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.
If the aquifer becomes unusable, what will farming look like as dryland systems become predominant? Dryland farming will certainly take fewer people and inputs, Garden City, Kan., farmer Boyd Funk told the newspaper.
If you’re a no-tiller, you already know reduced labor and inputs can be a huge benefit. But less irrigation may also reduce the need for certain businesses, as well as decreased land values and tax revenue, as Funk believes.
You can certainly paint doomsday scenarios. Or maybe the crystal ball looks something like this:
• Adoption of no-till practices climbs as growers take advantage of sparse rainfall events to retain more soil moisture. The higher organic matter offered through reduced tillage helps soils retain more water than fields that are tilled.
• Growers raise more forages and use high-residue crops, such as wheat and triticale, to build soil cover, as Bob Stewart, director of the Dryland Farming Institute at West Texas A&M suggested earlier this summer. “There will still be wheat, grain sorghum and cotton, but growing these crops will be quite a challenge,” as temperatures stay high, he says.
• Ideally, growers adopting no-till use the labor, equipment and input savings to invest in more efficient irrigation technology, such as drip-tape irrigation that spoon-feeds smaller amounts of water to the crop’s root zone. The USDA estimates there are 3.8 million acres of farmland under drip irrigation.
What dryland farming looks like 50 years from now will largely depend on the management decisions growers make. Taking steps now to use irrigation water more efficiently — and keep more of it in the soil — might help delay the demise of the Ogallala aquifer, as well as save some jobs and businesses along the way. The moisture-saving benefits of notill can be a part of that solution.