Saving every drop of rain that falls is extremely important to West Texas farmers who often make do on less than 20 inches a year. Most, including Taylor County, Texas, cotton farmer Cliff Etheredge, have received significantly less in four of the past five years. Crop yields have suffered.
Etheredge hopes to reverse that trend by doing everything he can to conserve moisture, including using a laser leveling system to re-build parallel terraces.
West Texas rains, Etheredge says, when they come at all, often fall as frog strangler deluges that run out of fields about as quickly as they hit.
Little water remains from these infrequent storms to replenish needed underground moisture and heavy downpours carry precious topsoil away from fragile fields.
"Most of our rains are hard rains," Etheredge says. "Our land is sloped and our soils are tight so uptake is slow. We lose a lot of moisture we need to store underground. And since water is the most limiting factor in crop production in this area, we need to save all we can."
Etheredge farms a quarter section that was parallel terraced ten years ago. "Those terraces did not work well," he says. "They just didn't fit. We had too much slope between terraces and too much blockage."
Last fall Etheredge bought a nine-yard scraper blade for his tractor and "an inexpensive laser and receiver.
"I mounted the laser on a two-wheel trailer and started reworking fields."
Etheredge had good conditions to work the land as soon as he got crops off. "The best time to work these soils is when they are dry," he says. "We can't do much with them wet."
He rough-leveled 120 acres last fall, using the scrape and the laser system. "We don't need fields to be foundation flat," he says. "We just need them flat enough to spread rain over the surface so it doesn't run off. We prevent runoff and erosion and store water to make our crops."
Etheredge says over time, the new terracing system will pay off. "This is a long-term project," he says. "But I feel like it will be an advantage. We pay short-term expenses for long-term gains."
He says his system is about as economical as he can get and still create level fields and terraces that hold water. He bought a used, reconditioned laser leveling system for about $2200. New, similar systems run closer to $10,000.
And he adapted his own equipment to operate the laser system.
"But it's still expensive. We will continue to level fields as we can afford it and as fall and winter conditions permit. We pick dry periods to work the terraces."
Etheredge says about 450 acres were rough-leveled back in the 1960s. "That's my most productive land. I want to finish that up with this system. It will take very little work to get it in shape. I'd like to get another 100 acres done this winter if I get the right conditions to work it."
After that, he hopes to get 50 acres a year re-terraced and laser leveled. "Some fields will need more work than others."
He says the old farm program that included setaside provisions would be ideal to take fields out of production while he leveled them.
In addition to leveling fields, Etheredge also hopes to adopt some sort of reduced tillage program to help conserve moisture and reduce costs.
"I've tried no-till two or three times, but cover crops seem to take too much of our limited soil moisture. I'm still trying to make it work, but I don't think a complete no-till system will be the answer. A reduced-tillage system, however, ought to help."