Farmers Using Water Conservation Methods to Stay Afloat

You need to look no further than the water highs and lows in the Midwest in the past two years to catch a glimpse of the weather extremes that farmers have faced around the world.
Much of the Midwest was overtaken by flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in 2011. In 2012, some 60% of the U.S. was in the grip of drought.
The real-world effects on farmers and ranchers took center stage in a panel discussion during the Water for Food Global Conference in Lincoln, Neb., Tuesday, as producers from Nebraska to Colorado to Brazil said for them it matters little whether the extremes are caused by climate change.
What matters is how they adjust.
"When you're there on the ground it doesn't really matter," said Ken Schilz, an Ogallala, Neb., rancher and state senator. "We have to find ways to deal with it."
Schilz's family operates a 5,000-acre corn, bean, wheat and alfalfa operation and finishes cattle. With a lack of rain in the past couple of years, he said, his farm has had to make adjustments.
"We've had to become more efficient in feeding animals," Schilz said. "You have to become better at producing a quality and quantity of meat. One thing we've learned over time is that the number of head has decreased because we are making them bigger."
Finished cattle from his farm arrive to market at an average weight of about 1,400 pounds. All the while, his operation has found ways to take advantage of any rains that do come.
"If you can store water underground, you save 6% to 8% on evaporation," Schilz said. "That will keep you afloat."
On the other extreme, Brazilian farmer Antonio Ferreira said much of the water challenges his farm faces comes from government bureaucracy. Last year Brazil enacted a new law that sets up a regime of water management and allocation.
Ferreira operates a 2,000-head cattle ranch on some 4,200 acres.
Although the two ranches he operates in Brazil average 66 inches and 51 inches of annual rainfall, respectively, he said he has had to take a closer look at how his farms use water.
"We are being watched closely," he said, "and the finger is pointed our way when it comes to water use."
When he assumed operation of the farm that has been in his family for nearly 300 years, Ferreira decided to move animals to slaughter at a younger age. This has led to less water consumption on his farm.
Ferreira and other Brazilian farmers would like to be able to take advantage of higher world commodity prices by using more water to improve yields.
Since water laws changed in 2012, however, he said that although Brazil has some 30 million acres of land that can be irrigated, those laws along with higher electricity prices led to farmers irrigating just 5 million acres last year.
One advantage of having abundant rainfall, Ferreira said, is that he has been able to build ponds to store water through the winter. This is a big deal for his farm, he said, because his animals are 100% grass-fed.
On the other extreme, third-generation Sutherland, Neb., rancher Michael Kelly said he is proactive in finding ways to conserve water in a region of the state that received just a little more than 7 inches of rainfall in 2012.
"Because of drought we had to reduce our stocking operation," he said.
"We don't have grass or moisture to sustain. We average 18 to 19 inches of rain for a year."
Kelly said his ranch is fortunate to have one of the most plentiful creeks in the country in Birdwood Creek that runs through his ranch. The previous landowner, he said, straightened the creek to the point that the area water table had dropped by 6 to 10 feet.
Drought across much of the U.S. Midwest in 2012 is one example of the weather extremes farmers around the world are facing. (DTN file photo by Pam Smith)
So Kelly undertook a $100,000 creek restoration that included researching 1930s-era maps to find the original creek route. As a result of returning much of the creek to its original route, Kelly said it has replenished the water table -- something vitally important in times of drought.
"Our family has deep roots in our stewardship," he said. "Our goal is we want to leave that land in better condition for the next generation."
Colorado rancher Duke Phillips, who manages some 200,000 acres of ranchland in Colorado, Texas and other regions, said many of those areas have had multiple years in the past decade where it didn't rain at all.
In the past year, he said, his operation has had to reduce herds by as much as 80%.
"The people I grew up with were really connected to the land because they have to use it to survive," Phillips said. "I've come to see ranches as a solution to ecological challenges.
"If we don't do something different, we're going to one day not be here."
Todd Neeley can be reached at


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