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A new irrigation mindset

Raising crops with limited irrigation water takes planning and a change of thinking.

6 Min Read
closeup of spigot in action
DIAL IN: Farmers who use water from the Ogallala Aquifer are continuously improving their irrigation techniques through equipment and cropping systems. Courtesy of Kansas Corn

Efficiency is key to any sustainable farm. But when that farm is facing water limitations, it’s even more critically important to make irrigation decisions that will effectively use the water that’s available. And for those above the Ogallala Aquifer, the time to boost efficiency is now.

And each farmer, in each of the eight states, has a different strategy for irrigation water conservation.

Irrigation equipment in field

Nebraska’s approach

There are approximately 1.1 million irrigated acres in the portion of the Republican River Basin within Nebraska. According to the Upper Republican Natural Resources District (the district) based in Imperial, Neb., which covers Chase, Dundy and Perkins counties, this represents the largest area of regulated groundwater use in the eight states that are over the massive Ogallala Aquifer. The district has maintained a groundwater level measurement database for more than 400 irrigation wells, measured twice annually, going back 52 years.

The first control area, the first and second special protection areas and the first three integrated management plans have been in the Republican Basin. Actions such as allocations, temporary suspension of irrigation well drilling and the first moratorium on drilling all occurred here. In addition, 33,000 acres have been enrolled in the Nebraska Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program in the basin to temporarily retire irrigated acres.

Today, irrigators within the 1.73 million-acre district operate with a five-year groundwater allocation of 62.5 inches, or roughly 12.5 inches each year — 43% less than the first allocation was when it was implemented in the district in 1979. To stay within these limits requires precision monitoring and a change in the way farmers plan their crop rotations.

Irrigators may not always like restrictions, but they understand the need to preserve groundwater resources. “In an effort to conserve water allocation, some farmers introduce lower-water-use, small-grain crops into the more traditional corn-on-corn or corn-soybean rotation,” says Jasper Fanning, the district’s general manager. “Use of drought-tolerant corn varieties is common, as are variable seeding rates that incorporate differing moisture-holding capacities of soils across a field to increase water use efficiency.”

Irrigation equipment in sorghum/corn field

Fanning says strip tillage is the prominent system in the area, but no-till is gaining, and conventional tillage is uncommon. “Reducing acres that are irrigated by taking off pivot end guns, or using allocation from less productive fields on their better fields, are other practices,” he explains. “Some farmers have retired pivots through our retirement program, making them dryland fields instead. We have offered pivot retirement incentives on fields where water use has high impacts on stream flow.”

Have these and other practices implemented in the district had an impact? “The areas that experience the sharpest [groundwater level] decline rates have a high density of irrigated land that was mostly developed before the district had the ability to control development,” Fanning says. “Our focus is to slow the rate of decline, which we have been able to do through programs and incentives we have in place for our water users.”

Thanks to the well measurements going back to 1972, URNRD has the most precise groundwater model possible for the district, Fanning acknowledges. “We’ll be able to use it to better manage groundwater declines and protect existing uses while also allowing new uses or changes in water use.”

Kansas cropping

Irrigation pivots have been a regular sight surrounding Johnson City, Kan., for decades. But farmers like Brant Peterson have had to adjust their irrigation methods in response to declining wells drawing from the Ogallala Aquifer.

Rather than shutting down irrigation completely, Peterson has found a way to strategically use his water through split applications on his pivots. He plants one half of the pivot to corn, and the other half to sorghum or another crop ideal for a dryland or limited-irrigation scenario. The two crops use water at different growth stages, which means he can apply his water when the crop will best use it, and limit waste.

 close-up of an Irrigation nozzle in field

Peterson starts by planting his shorter-maturity irrigated corn at the front end of his planting window. “I prefer a corn in the 103- to 109-day range,” he says. “Then, I follow on the other side of the field with a sorghum variety.” He likes to plant his sorghum about the first or second week of June and chooses a variety that will mature before freeze. The variation in maturities means that when the corn is at tassel and in its peak water use, the sorghum hasn’t hit boot stage yet, he explains.

“You split your peak water use by using the two separate crops,” he says. This also helps manage his weed pressures, because he can rotate his crop protection products.

“Now you can flip-flop fields and stay away from a corn-on-corn issue, so you don’t have to buy heavier-traited products,” he says. He can also adjust his population, both of which save him seed costs. And most importantly, this still allows him to purchase multi-peril crop insurance for irrigated corn at his 200-bushel APH, even if his well pumping capability is reduced.  

Peterson has also invested in improvements to his irrigation pivots to help ensure that they’re pumping and applying the water efficiently. He pays attention to nozzle spacing, uses Dragon-Line mobile drip irrigation, and uses tools to ensure the water reaches the end of the pivot span to water the most valuable parts of the field.

“You have to shift your mindset from ‘bushels per acre’ to ‘bushels per gallon’ while still maintaining your profitability,” Peterson says. He’s already farmed through three major droughts in Stanton County, and there will likely be more in the future. When it comes to water conservation, he says, his grandfather told him it’s better to manage as if you’ll not get the rain, than to rely on a rain that may never come.

About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

Jennifer M. Latzke

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Through all her travels, Jennifer M. Latzke knows that there is no place like Kansas.

Jennifer grew up on her family’s multigenerational registered Angus seedstock ranch and diversified farm just north of Woodbine, Kan., about 30 minutes south of Junction City on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was in her family’s backyard.

While at Kansas State University, Jennifer was a member of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and a national officer for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. She graduated in May 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and a minor in animal science. In August 2000 Jennifer started her 20-year agricultural writing career in Dodge City, Kan., on the far southwest corner of the state.

She’s traveled across the U.S. writing on wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton, dairy and beef stories as well as breaking news and policy at the local, state and national levels. Latzke has traveled across Mexico and South America with the U.S. Wheat Associates and toured Vietnam as a member of KARL Class X. She’s traveled to Argentina as one of 10 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism. And she was part of a delegation of AAEA: The Ag Communicators Network members invited to Cuba.

Jennifer’s an award-winning writer, columnist, and podcaster, recognized by the Kansas Professional Communicators, Kansas Press Association, the National Federation of Presswomen, Livestock Publications Council, and AAEA. In 2019, Jennifer reached the pinnacle of achievements, earning the title of “Writer of Merit” from AAEA.

Trips and accolades are lovely, but Jennifer says she is happiest on the road talking to farmers and ranchers and gathering stories and photos to share with readers.

“It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be able to tell someone’s story and bring them recognition for their work on the land,” Jennifer says. “But my role is also evolving to help our more urban neighbors understand the issues our Kansas farmers face in bringing the food and fiber to their store shelves.”

She spends her time gardening, crafting, watching K-State football, and cheering on her nephews and niece in their 4-H projects. She can be found on Twitter at @Latzke.

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