Western Dairies Maximize Water Supply

Article By Jennifer (Blackburn) Warren

In the sun-drenched fields of California’s Central Valley, one innovative dairy producer has harnessed the water-saving potential of wall-to-wall sorghum.

Jonathan Lawrence, a second generation dairyman and first generation farmer, is turning neighbors’ heads by planting all 1,100 acres of his farm ground to sorghum for the second year in a row for one leading reason–to save water.

Combatting a Megadrought

It is no secret the California megadrought is straining industries across the board, but for the state’s food and fiber producers, it’s threatening livelihoods—and for producers like Lawrence, the continuation of what began as part of his father’s American dream.

Lawrence’s parents immigrated from the Azores Islands of Portugal. His father began milking cows when he was 16-years-old, and he started his own herd in 1995, growing the operation from 110 cows to 2,500 today. Lawrence joined his father in 2006, and four years later he pioneered the farming portion of the operation.

“Right when I started [farming], I was planting a little bit of sorghum and a little bit of corn,” Lawrence said. “Then we went all corn eventually and the tonnages weren’t spectacular on the marginal ground, so I went back to sorghum as the water table was going down. I learned how to do it with sorghum because that’s the future; to use less water.”

“I learned how to do it with sorghum because that’s the future; to use less water.”

Lawrence said growing sorghum is the key to meeting the water requirements he’s been dealt in California’s Central Valley aquifer. After that, choosing the right variety and creating the right growing conditions to meet his nutrient needs for the cows is a make-it-work approach that few in his area share.

“I see about one sorghum field as a whole,” Lawrence said, driving back to the farm during the interview. “It’s all corn. Corn, corn, corn everywhere.”

Lawrence said from a nutrition standpoint, neighboring dairies are just more familiar with corn and nutritionists state you cannot milk off of sorghum fed rations.

“That’s what they say, and 10 years ago they also said we cannot milk off triticale, and we’re milking off triticale now,” he said. “I’m milking off of sorghum. You have to learn it. Corn is honestly better, but it’s not in our future.”

Data Proven Water Savings

The data doesn’t lie for Lawrence. He said with the water savings he is able to achieve, planting sorghum is a no-brainer.

“Right now [experts] are telling us that sorghum and corn are almost identical in water usage. That’s super bold because, right now, I’m doing about 55-60 percent of the water that I would do with corn,” he said. “Sorghum just utilizes [water] a whole lot better.”

“Right now [experts] are telling us that sorghum and corn are almost identical in water usage. That’s super bold because, right now, I’m doing about 55-60 percent of the water that I would do with corn. Sorghum just utilizes [water] a whole lot better.”

According to Lawrence’s meters, for every 3 feet of water he put down on corn, he’s irrigating 1.7 feet for sorghum, and if something goes wrong with his flood irrigation system, sorghum is more forgiving.

“If we have a pump go down or something happens to the water supply, and I can’t get onto it for another 3-4 days until I fix it, sorghum will be okay,” he said. “In corn, that’s a disaster for that field.”

Jason Sheehan, a 3,000 head dairy producer in the Yakima Valley in central Washington, is able to save water utilizing sorghum sudangrass and take up additional nutrients like nitrogen from the soil.

Sheehan operates in an area that receives 6-9 inches of annual rainfall. He relies on junior water rights for irrigation from the Yakima River, a 214-mile tributary of the Columbia River, the longest river in Washington state that runs 1,243 miles from its headwaters in British Columbia all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

During drought years, like 2023, Sheehan plants sorghum sudan to maximize the water he has available over his farming acres, supplied through the Roza and Sunnyside Valley Irrigation Districts.

“I think we are at 70-72 percent water for the year on proration,” Sheehan said, “so there are times I plant crops that don’t require as much water. Sorghum sudan has worked really well for us to be able to utilize our water and still grow feed for the dairy. In fact, in 2015 we were at 43 percent water for the Roza district, and sorghum sudan was a big part of getting us through the drought while still growing feed and utilizing nutrients.”

Nitrogen Uptake with Manure Management

Managing manure takes some fertilizing finesse as Sheehan must comply with a strict Dairy Nutrient Management Plan (DNMP) regulated by the Washington State Department of Agriculture. Elements of this program are managed in conformance with the Washington State Department of Ecology, the delegating agency for the federal Clean Water Act, where Sheehan receives his National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permit.

He’s required to have soil samples taken two times per year to ensure levels are in compliance with his permit.

“Going into the fall, we cannot be above 45 pounds of nitrogen in the soil, or we are out of compliance,” Sheehan said. “So if we’re short on water and want to have a crop that’s going to give us a good yield with the ability to take up nutrients, [sorghum sudan] really likes manure and is good at that.”

Lawrence is under similar regulations through the California Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP), which requires testing after every crop removal on every field. He applies anywhere from 4-15 tons of manure annually across his total acres, depending on soil profiles, and said sorghum helps draw down his bank of nutrients.

“Sorghum,” he said, “is a way better miner of nutrients than corn.”

Harvesting for Nutrients

While Sheehan primarily utilizes his sorghum in a ration for his 2,800 head of heifers, Lawrence feeds his sorghum to his milking cows, and neither producer has experienced loss of nutrients with sorghum.

“Our starch levels were lower, but with sorghum, the digestibility is higher, so they almost offset,” Lawrence said. “We didn’t make a lot of changes going from corn to sorghum at all, and once we adjusted where we’re getting our starches from, we saw zero difference in milk supply.”

Looking forward, the water woes plaguing the American west necessitate a comprehensive and sustainable approach, and Lawrence contends sorghum is a promising choice for water-stressed areas.

“Sorghum can handle our water situation,” he said, “and then it comes down to getting the variety that has what I need. Then I let the cows do the rest.”


This story originally appeared in the Summer 2023 Issue of Sorghum Grower magazine.