Archive for Friday, January 10, 2014

Editorial: Aquifer and agriculture

Agriculture changes must be part of the plan to preserve the Ogallala Aquifer.

January 10, 2014


Sometimes, it isn’t that the handwriting on the wall is indecipherable, it’s just that the message refuses to be acknowledged.

There’s the buggy-whip-business analogy, or more recently changes technology has brought about that have impacted and are changing communications, education, computers, banking, media, retail and nearly every facet of life in the United States. Agriculture is not exempt from reality, whether it’s imposed by technology or other factors.

The case in point is the continued depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, which for years has enabled western Kansas farmers to sustain crops primarily to feed cattle to supply beef for consumers.

The aquifer is going dry to the point that the cost of pumping water from it no longer makes economic sense to the users.

And to call the concept of a multi-billion-dollar canal from the Missouri River to resupply the aquifer a pipe dream is to denigrate pipe dreams.

At the same time that the Kansas Geological Survey is again measuring the drop in the aquifer, Josh Svaty, a former Kansas Secretary of Agriculture now with the Land Institute, spoke in Lawrence about the economy related to the aquifer. He did so in the same time frame of recent reports of Kansas farmers turning to cotton as a crop that has more economic feasibility than the grains the aquifer long has made possible.

The confluence of attention given to these related matters, and the importance of the topics, should not be lost. While time permits, a means should be found to encourage landholders in Western Kansas to examine what the Salina-based Land Institute can offer: research and information about commercial crops better suited to the climate and soil conditions above the aquifer.

It should not be left to the Land Institute alone. As Gov. Sam Brownback has acknowledged, “Water and the Kansas economy are directly linked. Water is a finite resource and without further planning and action we will no longer be able to meet our state’s current needs, let alone growth.” That report should include a path to a suitable crop transition in Western Kansas that can protect its economy while moving it away from its insatiable thirst for the Ogallala water.

A gubernatorial task force is charged with reporting this coming November. Let’s hope the handwriting on the wall is in large clear print and that the message gets through.


Ron Holzwarth 11 months, 2 weeks ago

"recent reports of Kansas farmers turning to cotton as a crop that has more economic feasibility than the grains the aquifer long has made possible."

What? Says the farm boy.

It is not necessary to draw any water from the Ogallala Aquifer in order to grow wheat, rye, or milo. Although, milo is not usually raised for the grain, instead it's used as a forage crop for cattle. And there's no local market for rye, the crop was fabulous but the only buyers for it are so far away that there is very little profit left after paying for the shipping costs. So my Dad raised rye only once and regretted it, because that year the wheat crop was very profitable.

I can't think of a single grain that requires irrigation. It is a fact that a very few farmers do irrigate wheat, but that's awfully rare. If you have the irrigation system, you raise corn, which is much more profitable. After all of the costs are factored in, using irrigation to raise wheat is not cost effective. You can often get over 50 bushels per acre every other year using the summer fallow method without using irrigation, so why spend well over $100,000 to get it a little higher?

My family has been farming in Cheyenne county, in the northwest corner of Kansas, since 1880 - 1917, and never drew a drop from the aquifer, except for household purposes. It was the opinion of my father and his forefathers that the cost of the irrigation systems was simply not worth the potential yield and the risk of that investment.

They are talking about growing cotton?

"Successful cultivation of cotton requires a long frost-free period, plenty of sunshine, and a moderate rainfall, usually from 600 to 1200 mm (24 to 48 inches)."
From Wiki:

Wikipedia might not be the most authoritative source, but it's a fact that western Kansas does not have a long frost-free period. When I was rather young, we made a long road trip into Texas, and it was necessary to drive hundreds of miles south to get to anywhere cotton was being grown. And, it's a profitable crop, so I doubt very much that the farmers in western Kansas have simply not heard of it yet.

There is a huge difference between 24 to 48 inches of rainfall and the 6.43 inches received in 2001-02, although there was 31.96 inches in 1951-56. However, that was very exceptional, and only occurred once between the years 1930 and 2002. There is not enough rain to grow cotton in western Kansas almost every year. That is not going to work, because as a general rule, a farmer expects to lose his entire crop only about once every seven years.

There is only one way to preserve the aquifer, and that is to use taxation in order to make draining it unprofitable. There are many ways such a tax could be implemented.

Ken Lassman 11 months, 2 weeks ago

When I lived in north Lawrence, a neighbor who grew up in Mississippi grew a row or two of cotton in his garden just to show his grandchildren what it looked like, and my grandmother did the same thing, even though she grew up in east central Kansas.

Looks like short season cotton is getting more profitable and a cursory glance at the internet shows that it's making the norther expansion commercially more and more viable--here's one example:

Of course the lengthening growing season is also making this more viable, due to climate change. Probably makes the pest habitat more viable too, I expect. Irrigation may still be a sticking point, but I'm sure those genetic scientists are working on drought tolerant varieties as well. In the meantime, looks like dryland cotton is pretty common anyway:

Ron Holzwarth 11 months, 2 weeks ago

The climate in Lawrence is noticeably different than in far western Kansas. One way it is different is that eastern Kansas receives about twice the rainfall as western Kansas does. Another way it is very different is that spring arrives later there, and the first frost is much earlier there. So, the growing season is much shorter. That's why winter wheat is exclusively grown. And yet another way it differs is that it is much colder in the winters in western Kansas.

So, a crop might be grown in eastern Kansas, but that certainly does not mean it can be grown in western Kansas. Of course, with the exception of short season varieties yet to be developed in most cases, and irrigation from the Ogallala Aquifer to make up for the shortage of rainfall that some crops, such as cotton or corn, usually require. That will differ a great deal, depending upon exactly what part of Kansas you are talking about.

As an aside, I have a bit more of a farm background than many people do. For many years my father worked for the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), and so agricultural topics were endlessly discussed at home. What the ASCS did was inform the local farmers of the latest news from the state and federal government that affected them, as well as give advice about the latest in agricultural practices. The ASCS offered other services to farmers as well, such as federal loans.

Plus, working in the fields of growing crops, and also a bit of work in the pastures, was all we ever did, it would be tedious to list it all. It's easier to list what we didn't do: Harvest wheat and swath feed crops. That we left to specialized operators. We were specialized operators also, but we specialized in different things. My father's side of the family mostly farmed, and on my mother's side, mostly operated a ranch. Of course, most farming and ranching operations have quite a lot of overlap.

It might be possible to grow a short season cotton crop in the southern part of western Kansas, but in the northern part, that's simply not going to be possible. Unless there is a massive climate change. But I will admit that the only part of Kansas that I am knowledgeable about is the far northwestern corner of the state. But that, I know very well.

Ron Holzwarth 11 months, 2 weeks ago

Ken, about your first link, June 1990 was quite a while ago, almost 24 years. That's your reference?

And, I took a look at your second link. Did you notice that the dryland cotton they were talking about is in North Carolina? Dryland is a relative term, the climate in North Carolina is very different than in western Kansas. They get rain there that we can only dream of in far western Kansas. I know that because I've been there!

Michael LoBurgio 11 months, 2 weeks ago

Growing hemp is the answer

US farmers cautiously growing hemp again after 56 years of brain-dead prohibition

The U.S. is one of the fastest expanding markets for hemp in the world, and imports currently come primarily from Canada and China. America imported $11.5 million worth of hemp products in 2011, up from $1.4 million in 2000, the majority of which is used to make granola bars, cooking oils, and personal care products.

Steenstra says in addition to supporting American farmers, a local hemp industry will bring the prices down, and mitigate ecological impacts. Dr. Bronner’s is based in California, where just last month a bill to legalize hemp was passed— contingent upon the Justice Department’s reaction.

The law requires California to regulate the farming, processing, and sales of hemp for oilseed and fiber, just as soon as the federal government says it’s okay to do so.

Ron Holzwarth 11 months, 2 weeks ago

Everything in this editorial talks about action being taken only here in Kansas. That's not going to work, because the Ogallala Aquifer spans eight states. If we were to solve the problem here in Kansas, the water would simply flow to the other seven states that did not solve the problem. It's a lake, and the water flows, although at a very slow rate.

There is no chance that the eight states atop the aquifer will ever work together to solve the problem, so federal action is going to be the only solution. Federal action will take place only at a slow and ponderous rate, if it is addressed at all. Washington, D.C., is very likely to be more concerned about the wars taking place at the present time than the aquifer.

But, it is stated in the editorial, and this is true for sure: "The aquifer is going dry to the point that the cost of pumping water from it no longer makes economic sense to the users."

Yes, we knew some of those people. But there's still a lot of pumping taking place, as can easily be seen by looking at the aerial photographs on I did that recently, and there are a whole lot of center pivot irrigation systems that I don't remember. But, from a ground view, they probably weren't very visible.

It's possible that with the large decline in the water table and the increased energy costs, the problem may be solved by simple economics. Actually, it was already solved for a lot of farmers back in the late 1970s when they didn't have enough money set aside, nor enough credit, to have their wells drilled deeper to reach the water. A lot of farmers in and near Cheyenne county declared bankruptcy because of that problem. I tend to think things have not changed much.

Ken Lassman 11 months, 2 weeks ago

OK, how about a little more information? Could be that Mr. Svaty wasn't talking about the Ogallala aquifer so much as he was about the Great Bend Aquifer and the Equus beds in south central Kansas, considering that the lion's share of cotton in Kansas is grown in Cowley, Stafford, Rice and McPherson counties. Check out the K-State Extension brochure about growing cotton in Kansas ( ) and you'll see that both irrigated and dryland cotton is being grown in our state, that there are short season varieties that do OK, and also cultivating cotton is a pretty management-intensive proposition.

Cowley County gets 32-36", Stafford gets 24-28", McPherson gets 30-34", and Rice gets 26-30" all of which are probably wet enough for dryland cotton most years.

Ron Holzwarth 11 months, 1 week ago

The United States Midwest is called the breadbasket of the country. Growing cotton doesn't seem to me to be a good solution, because you can't eat it.

Ken Lassman 11 months, 1 week ago

Most of the corn and soybeans grown in the midwest don't go directly to people to eat, either. It either goes to feed cattle, chickens, is shipped overseas for balance of trade exports, makes ethanol etc. Furthermore, the 3000 or so acres of cotton grown in Kansas has a long way to go before tying up enough acreage to compete with all of those acres devoted either directly or indirectly to food.

Ron Holzwarth 11 months, 1 week ago

I can't argue with any of those statements because they are all very accurate. And, you can't argue with this: In Cheyenne county, the northwest corner of Kansas, it is a very rare year in which corn or soybeans can be raised at all without irrigation. No business minded farmer in far northwestern Kansas is going to plant a crop year after year, every year hoping that this is his lucky year.

The state of Kansas is large, approximately equal in area to Great Britain, and the amount of rainfall received, the length of the growing season, and the groundwater depth all vary a great deal throughout the state. So, a single solution for the water problem will never cover all of Kansas.

To me, the solution for far northwest Kansas seems very obvious: Follow the Holzwarth family farm method of not using irrigation at all, and grow wheat, maybe rye, milo, and other forage crops for cattle. They don't require irrigation, even in the far northwest corner of the state. Your crops will not be as large, but you save a whole lot of money on irrigation costs.

My grandfather was a wheat farmer in Cheyenne county, he never irrigated, and he bought a brand new car for cash every two years, or sometimes three if he really liked the car. He never carried any debt, because the wheat crops grown without irrigation paid for everything. It can be done!

Ken Lassman 11 months, 1 week ago

I totally agree that the solution to western Kansas irrigation in the future is finding those dryland agriculture solutions like you and your family have stuck to all along. I understand that when we talk about Kansas, we're talking about anywhere from less than 20 inches to over 40 inches and that High Plains Kansas has much more in common with eastern Colorado/western Nebraska/panhandle Oklahoma ag than anything that goes on around this part of our state.

Some of my favorite parts of the state are the wild Arikaree Breaks north of St. Francis and surrounds, by the way. Western Kansas is full of surprising beauty for those willing to get off of I70 and do some exploring.

Ron Holzwarth 11 months, 1 week ago

You're certainly correct in your statement about High Plains Kansas having a lot in common with eastern Colorado and Nebraska, and I know why. It's because from where I grew up, St. Francis, which you mentioned, Colorado is only 10 miles away, and Nebraska is only about 19 miles away. I saw the capital of Colorado countless times, and for many years I wanted to see the capital of Kansas, Topeka, which I considered to be a Far Eastern City. I didn't get to travel that far east until I was 18.

So, you've been to the Arikaree Breaks? Did you enjoy your visit to a portion of a ranch that one of my Grandfathers owned from the 1920s until 1967? Oh, the stories behind that one, I'll abbreviate to just one very short story:

We laughed for decades about the lady moonshiner that operated her still on a wagon during Prohibition that my grandfather was constantly chasing out of the valleys in the Arikaree breaks, and when he went back in a month or two, there she was, operating her still again! That went on for years, and was an extreme frustration for him.

And yes, get off I-70 and do some exploring. I did a whole lot of exploring on a Yamaha Enduro 125cc motorcycle, which was capable of highway speed (is 65mph highway speed?), and was small enough and light enough to be pushed underneath barbed wire fences. That machine removed almost all limitations, and so I could travel across every pasture, and easily cross any fence.

One of my interesting experiences was the time I was going cross country, and I discovered some outbuildings of sod construction. Sod was not used only for homes, but for outbuildings as well. I rode the motorcycle right up to those buildings and examined them closely. I was so happy that I had discovered them, and it was unfortunate that they were so far from any road.

After a while it was time to go, and I decided to keep on traveling cross country east, to see what more I could find. I didn't get very far before I came to an obstacle that was blocking my travel - a road! I got on the road, and then I suddenly recognized it. I had traveled on that road many dozens, maybe over a hundred times, and I had seen those buildings almost every time. And, I had never realized that they were sod buildings.

This is what I learned that day:
It is amazing how different things can appear when you look at them from a different viewpoint.

Chris Golledge 11 months, 1 week ago

So, if water is such a problem in western Kansas, and coal plants require a lot of water, why is Brownback saying we should conserve the water at the same time he is in favor of putting in a coal plant here so the owner can sell the electricity to Colorado?

Chris Golledge 11 months, 1 week ago

An interesting discussion on the viability of cotton in Kansas, but I think I can summarise.

Cotton requires at least 200 frost free days and at least 700mm (27.5 inches) of precipitation. Wheat is less sensitive to frost and requires at least 450mm of precipitation.

Replacing wheat with cotton does not seem like a viable option in Kansas because it needs more water, and it is a water shortage we are talking about. And, it would be a crap shoot in a lot of the state if you could get 200 frost-free days, and also get the water you need at the time that it is needed. If you plant cotton late enough to avoid a frost, your peak water needs occur in the hot and dry part of the summer. Yes, it is being done, but there are reasons it is not being done a lot.

Chris Golledge 11 months, 1 week ago

This is where it makes sense to grow cotton in the US. Kansas has little of the viable climate zone.

It is not the case that farmers have to be told how to maximise their profits.

Ken Lassman 11 months, 1 week ago

Time for more Kansas-specific information. Here's some statistics on cotton growing in our fair state: 1992 3,000 acres

2006 115,000 acres

2010 50,000 acres

2011 65,000 acres

2012 54,000 acres

2013 26,000 acres

The southcentral counties I mentioned earlier up the comment column are dryland cotton, while in southwest Kansas, the Ogallalah Aquifer IS being tapped in the same way as points south in Oklahoma and Texas, with pretty high profit margins and significantly less water needed than growing irrigated corn. Northwest Kansas has never been considered an area viable for cotton production. Acreage planted is significantly impacted by spring temperatures and soil moisture, which is part of the reason why it fluctuates so much. Other significant variables include susceptibility to herbicide drift used for other crops, the amount of fertilizer, herbicided and pesticides required to grow the crop, the lack of infrastructure in many parts of the state for harvesting, etc.

Given the fact that the growing zones are shifting north due to climate change, there may be a real role for cotton as a viable alternative crop for Kansas farmers, although the window of opportunity may not stay open if any number of variables change enough (even more extreme droughts, even greater drops in the Ogallalah Aquifer increases irrigation costs enough that even the reduced water needs of cotton are too much, northern migration of cotton pests, etc.)

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