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Beefs and Beliefs

Is Livestock The Great Hope For The Ogallala Aquifer?

Financial return and production per gallon of water both very high for beef and other livestock production.


I want to share with you some very positive statistics I have learned about the value of livestock to land.

Beef Producer columnist Walt Davis has written well lately about the biological value livestock brings to the land.

I'm writing about the pure economic value.

When I was in Texas the other day Economist Steve Amosson presented some values for livestock operations in the Southern Plains, and specifically for the region sitting atop the famed Ogallala Aquifer.

Amosson was quoting from a study he and others did on the effects of livestock on the declining Ogallala water levels and the financial values of livestock and cropping as they relate directly to the region and to the water resource.

Amosson was quoting numbers for the most troubled part of the Ogallala which includes 97,000 square miles from the northern border of Kansas an includes parts of Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

He said 90% of water use from the aquifer is still for crop irrigation.

Concerning beef in the region, Amosson said he and the other researchers quantified a 5-million-head per year one-time capacity for all operations, from cow-calf operations to feedlots. Those beef animals are responsible for 105,635 acre-feet of water consumption as a direct use. One acre-foot of water is 325,853 gallons so that would be more than 34.4 billion gallons of water.

Now here's where the numbers can get a little confusing. Direct use would be what the animals actually drink and what is otherwise used directly used in production and slaughter.

Indirect use of water by beef cattle in the southern part of the Ogallala region is 2.99 million acre feet or nearly 974 billion gallons. This indirect use number includes the amount of water used to grow grain and silage and such. This measure of indirect use is not a completely truthful measure because the southern High Plains with all its feedlots and slaughter infrastructure is a grain-deficit area, Amosson reminds us. The water use numbers from High Plains grain production are plugged into the imported corn and such, even though much of that was grown on dryland farms in the Corn Belt.

Ultimately, however, beef uses only 1% of the water being drawn from the southern region of the Ogallala Aquifer and generates a total value in the region just shy of $30 billion dollars and it accounts for more than 60,000 jobs.

The number of large dairies and of hog operations is much higher than it was a few years ago, so we must add those into the usage totals, as well. Although they are small compared with beef, they bring the total livestock water withdrawal to 7 million acre feet per year. For that withdrawal of water the region gets back $37.8 billion in output and 96,500 jobs.

The return on investment, if you could call it that, is huge by comparison to irrigated cropland returns, which Amosson says run a little over $400 per acre foot.

Amosson says beef operations in the region return $3,645 per acre foot of water use when you factor in the indirect water use of imported corn. When only regional water use, both direct and indirect is considered, beef in the southern Ogallala region returns a whopping $5,654 per acre foot of groundwater withdrawn.

Of course, as the water declines further and grain farming with it, the nature of livestock operations may need to change in the region. That will be market-driven, as far as I can tell. But next time someone is maligning livestock and water usage, you will have ammunition to shoot down their foolishness.

Just think: Livestock puts much less pressure on the resource and returns much more money per gallon of water withdrawn. It makes livestock production sound pretty good!

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