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For decades the Ogallala aquifer has been the lifeblood of farming in the High Plains, but it is not as fruitful as it once was. Those across this area are utilizing various conservation techniques to preserve this precious resource.
The Ogallala Aquifer is as ubiquitous across its range as the long stretches between good rains, the winds that whip fields dry and the millions of rows of corn, cotton, wheat and sorghum.
The Ogallala is a complex underground water system. It runs from the southernmost counties of South Dakota deep into West Texas.
In the 1910s when farmers began drilling into the Ogallala, drawing on the seemingly endless supply of water to turn the Great Plains into one of the country’s most prolific farming and ranching regions, it seemed the land had found eternal life. Today though, an entire industry is at risk as the drawdown, or annual rate of depletion, of the aquifer threatens to end farming as we know it in this critical region.
These farmers though, are tough. To stake out a tentative hold during the land rush that brought their ancestors west required grit, hard work and a deep stubborn streak. This land does not give of itself easily, and farmers in this region are as determined to maintain their land and way of life as their forefathers were to establish it.
So farmers across the Great Plains are turning to new ways to nurture the soil passed down through generations and ensure their daughters and granddaughters still have land worth farming – even if it is not exactly the same way their fathers and grandfathers did it.
New technology, tillage practices and turning to water efficient crops like sorghum are just a few ways they are bridging the divide as they face lower water capacity every year.
Thinking Creatively About Rotation
Clinton Oyler is an irrigated farmer in the Oklahoma Panhandle and southwest Kansas.
“Seventy percent of the reason I chose to raise more milo is because it was dry,” he said of his crop mix last year. “We didn’t have a [moisture] profile to work with. At the same time, milo basis is getting better and better, so my decision to plant milo was 70 percent water and 30 percent price.”
Water has always been a part of Oyler’s annual decision matrix, but he has changed the way he thinks about crop rotation since his water availability started to drop off in 2012.
“Prior to that, it was always a matter of trying to figure out how much water I would have for the corn,” Oyler said. “My approach was that we would do all we can for the corn, and if there was any [water] left it will go to milo and cotton.”
Oyler said even when he was using all the water he had to raise corn, he had a minimal corn crop and ended up destroying his other crops. Five years ago, he said he began to allocate more water to other crops, which has improved his overall operation.
Management Turns the Tide
In northwest Kansas, Shannon Kenyon, manager at Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District #4, has seen a creative crop mix benefit her coverage area in similar ways.
In 2013, observing significant decline in the Ogallala, a group of farmers banded together to reduce aquifer drawdown. They established the Sheridan County Local Enhanced Management Area, or Sheridan 6 LEMA, one of six high priority conservation areas. They intended to reduce water consumption by 20 percent over five years.
“It was a popular area for corn-on-corn-on-corn,” Kenyon said. “But now that they have limited water, we see different crops come into the mix of things. Sorghum plays a part in that.”
Over the course of five years, Sheridan 6 LEMA saved about 39 percent of what they originally used, and the area is beginning to see a level off in the [aquifer] decline. Kenyon stressed that the battle is far from won, but the results are promising.
Crop rotation and utilizing water-sipping crops is a vital part of reducing aquifer drawdown, but technology can also play a significant role in water conservation. Jeff Miller of ForeFront Agronomy in the Texas Panhandle is a champion of water conservation, for its own sake and for the return on investment it offers to producers.
As a crop consultant in some of the areas hardest hit by drawdown over the past 60 years, Miller said he encourages the farmers he works with to adopt various types of technology to increase yield, lower input costs and maximize water efficiency. His moisture sensors, strategically placed in fields, give the farmer a view below the surface and help inform decisions about when it is time to turn the water on and when it can wait a day or two.
“Moisture sensors are a tool,” Miller said. “They have no brain. They give you data. It’s up to [the farmer and advisors] to interpret and customize that for the goals we want to achieve.”
Scott Schechter, an agronomist with Eagle Precision Ag in southern Kansas,, also advises farmers on their use of new technologies and sees how they can play into long-term water conservation plans. He said moisture sensors, among other tools, inform decision-making throughout the season.
“I can pump a little bit of water, make sure my profile is full, plant milo, water it up, set chemical and walk away until right before boot,”Schechter said. “Then I can hit it with 10-12 inches. At that point you start penciling out 120- to 140-bushel milo, and you’re starting to make a good return.”
While Oyler agreed it is important to utilize new technology and data, he said he has found it works best combined with traditional tactics of going out to the field and really observing your soil.
“It’s another piece of data,” he says. “You still have to rely on what you see and what’s in the soil, but it makes it nice to confirm what you find out there.”
The Full Picture
Overall, while using water more efficiently is important, truly saving water and using less of it to maximize production is a necessary management strategy.
Oyler said he was pumping 21-23 inches on his corn and getting an average of 180-215 bushels per acre, compared to a maximum of 10 inches on sorghum where he was seeing 130-170 bushels per acre.
“It doesn’t take long to see how much more efficient sorghum is than corn,” Oyler said.
Oyler has embraced a number of management strategies on his farm that extend the life of his water, for those who will farm after him and for those he will never meet up and down the aquifer. He is not alone—farmers across the Sorghum Belt are waking up to a world where the old tactics just will not work.
“Do our farmers understand the mess we’re in?” Schechter asked. “Yeah, they do. For our water supply, it couldn’t be a better time for the price of sorghum to go up.
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 Issue of Sorghum Grower magazine.