Norfolk, Bartlett and Ogallala, Nebraska
Department of Plant Agriculture

Day 6 - Friday

Ethics of Water Use at Mid-plains Ag Farm: Ogallala, Nebraska and Dryland Pasture and Cattle management at Wagonhammer Ranch: Bartlett, Nebraska

September 1, 2017
By: Austin Bruch, Johnathan Slack, Trevor Gras, Christine White and Lisa Bertens

Nebraska is an agricultural powerhouse that produces irrigated corn, irrigated soybeans and beef cattle. The main themes for the day were ethics of water use from the Ogallala Aquifer in

Jay Wolfe and Al of Wagonhammer ranch with the class under an old Cottonwood tree at Wagon hammer Ranch
Pictured above: Jay Wolfe and Al of Wagonhammer ranch with the class under an old Cottonwood tree at Wagon hammer Ranch

Nebraska and additionally dryland pasture and cattle management. In the morning, we left Norfolk, Nebraska with University of Nebraska professor and extension irrigation specialist Bill Kranz. Bill explained the cropping systems, ethics, rules and regulations regarding irrigation in Nebraska on the way to Mid-plai­ns Ag. Later in the day, we drove into drier and more delicate landscapes where the rolling hills of corn and soybeans turned to dryland pastures. The Wagonhammer Ranch, our second stop, was a dry land cow calf ranch on the short grass prairies of Nebraska’s sand hills. The transition from dryland pasture to irrigated crops was made possible by new technologies; however, we learned that the new irrigation methods had to be regulated to prevent overuse of water resources.

The History and Regulations of Water Use in Nebraska
Bill Kranz joined us first thing to help explain the rules and regulations of water use in Nebraska. In the 1930s, water used for irrigating crops was primarily supplied by aboveground lakes and manmade reservoirs. As irrigation practices became more popular, congress passed Public Law 74-46, which directed the Secretary of Agriculture to establish the Soil Conservation Service in order to preserve water resources by creating water rights. Currently the state of Nebraska sits on 65% of the Ogallala aquifer, making water very accessible for all sectors; this is a lot more than other states. To legally access water usage rights, farmers would apply for a permit with the district and if water was available, they were given their water rights, which were tied to the farm and allowed them to access water. In times of water scarcity, there was a seniority of water rights that declared the owner of the newest rights was the first to be limited access to both ground and surface water, and the last to be allowed access again.

In addition to the levels of seniority among farmers, there is a hierarchy among socio-economic sectors. Most important of these sectors is domestic water needs, followed by the industrial sector, then the agricultural sector. For other states with different water availabilities and governments, water access rights are based on different policies. The hierarchy among socio-economic sectors creates a debate between domestic, industrial and agricultural users. Since water in urban cities is primarily used for human consumption, water quality is very important. Water in the aquifer is tested to contain approximately 40ppm of nitrates while the maximum nitrates allowed in drinking water is only 10ppm. Farmers must follow extra steps and precautions such as nutrient management plans in order for there to be clean water that can be used for human consumption.

Presently, surface water is regulated by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), while ground water is regulated by Natural Resource Districts (NRDs). There are 23 NRDs within Nebraska, 6 of which are located within the Platt system. The DNR (state level) and NRDs (districts within states) are also jointly responsible for surface and groundwater integrated management planning. The NRDs and the Soil Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) work together to ensure water rights are not being violated within their district. Boundaries for their districts are aligned with the water basin.
Water usage is closely regulated by the NRD with monitoring programs. They follow the law of correlative rights, which allows the owner of the land to get a permit to use the water that is below their property, but is under management of the public. For instance, if a landowner over uses their water, the public has the right to limit their water use. The NRD also has the authority to tax landowners. Taxes vary within regions based on water usage and projects being conducted by the NRD and DNR. The taxes are also used to hire employees for the NRD in order to enforce and create rules and regulations in regards to water use.

Once we got to our first stop of the day at Mid-plains Ag, Bill and the farmer who met us at our stop explained some of the cropping systems and irrigation practices used in the region. Before affordable turbines were developed, agriculture in the region was very high risk, supporting only dryland cattle and low yielding crops. It was only after World War II that pumping systems were readily available and the new pumping technology allowed farmers to tap into one of the world’s largest fresh water aquifers, the Ogallala.

Ogallala Aquifer
The Ogallala aquifer lies about 30 to 200 feet under The Great Plains from South Dakota to Northern Texas, and is about as wide as Nebraska. The aquifer is a mix of saturated sands and gravel 200 to 1000 feet thick. As a fresh water lake with the same surface area, it would form a lake 500 feet deep. However, there are huge financial barriers to accessing an irrigation source that can alleviate the great risks associated with Great Plains agriculture. Firstly, drilling, pumping and the capital required to have a functional irrigation system is very expensive, over $100,000 USD per 300 acres field. Government subsidies, well priced corn and soybeans and constant yields associated with irrigation allowed the typical central pivot irrigation to be economically feasible. The central pivot arm creates a circle shaped irrigated field. Dryland corners are often planted at lower densities in order to combat the lesser amount of water received. The corners can also be planted as grass, hay, or drought tolerant crops like sorghum. For about $20,000 USD an extension arm can be attached to the central pivot arm to irrigate the dry corners, however this is not a common practice due the poor return of investment and change in government subsidisation.

Central Pivot Irrigation Systems

The outer end of a central pivot irrigation arm
Pictured above: The outer end of a central pivot irrigation arm. The unirrigated corner of this field was left as grass. Note the presence of glyphosate resistant weeds in the  soybeans. This fields was one of the  less weedy fields seen on the tour.

The central pivot irrigation systems consist of a well head, a diesel, gas or electric pump, the pivot arm, drive wheels, gear box and sprinkler heads. Each sprinkler head has its flow rate set by the size of orifice between the sprinkler head and main pipe. By setting the flow of each sprinkler to different rates, an even application of water can be distributed otherwise, the centre of the field would receive more water than the outside of the circle. To apply ¾” of water, the pivot arm must run for 3- 4 days. The average growing season in Nebraska for corn and soybeans is about 105 -120 days. To grow high yielding corn and soybeans, about 24” of rainfall per acre ( 10,195 L per bushel or ½ cup per kernel) are required. The average rainfall is about 12”, meaning the irrigation system must apply 12” and be on almost all the time to fulfill the irrigation requirement. However, with the help of technology the systems can be turned on and off remotely to prevent over irrigation in conjunction with soil moisture monitoring equipment.

Various sprinkler heads used  on  the central pivot irrigation systems
Pictured above: Various sprinkler heads used  on  the central pivot irrigation systems.

Weed Control and Resistance under Irrigated Cropping Systems
Irrigation allows crops to grow much faster when compared to rain fed land, allowing the canopy to close faster. Increased growth rate is more noticeable in dry years or when nutrients are limiting, as manure and chemical fertilizers can be applied through the irrigation systems. Fast canopy closure is critical to weed control as fast initial growth allows the crops to shade inter row spaces send deep roots accessing necessary nutrients from the soil. The Midwest is under a limited crop and herbicide rotation, leading to herbicide resistant weeds.

The corn-corn and corn-soybean rotations, with up to 6 applications of glyphosate per year, have placed selection pressures on weeds. In the mid 1990’s crops resistant to glyphosate was developed through genetic modification. Glyphosate resistant corn and soybeans (a.k.a. “roundup ready”) were the first to hit the market. The glyphosate revolution killed weeds resistant to older herbicides, reduced the need for energy intensive tillage, and allowed for no-till practices to be possible in some cropping systems. Today, weeds are now becoming resistant to glyphosate due to over use, poor rotation of crop types (with different timing of agricultural activities) and poor use of check crops (fields with no glyphosate resistant crops to allow glyphosate intolerant weeds to remain in the gene pool). Weeds resistant to glyphosate are posing a problem to farmers who rely on herbicide applications to keep their fields weed free. For example, two glyphosate resistant Amaranthus species, water hemp and palmers amaranth are very common and some farmers have no way of controlling them. Fortunately, some newer crops have “stacked” traits, meaning they have been bred or modified to be resistant to multiple herbicides, i.e. “Liberty Link Soybeans”, which are resistant to dicamba.

Weed pressure in  irrigated roundup ready corn in  Nebraska
Pictured above: Weed pressure in  irrigated roundup ready corn in  Nebraska.

A Rancher who is Passionate about Land

Cows and calves grazing at Wagonhammer Ranch
Pictured above: Cows and calves grazing at Wagonhammer Ranch.

After we thanked our hosts and ate lunch, we headed to the Wagonhammer Ranch, owned by Jay Wolfe. Jay Wolfe is very passionate about preserving the fragile prairie sand hills while he runs his vertically integrated cow calf ranch operation on that land. Vertically integrating a business allows for a better risk management strategy.  By having different aspects in the business, if there is a tough year in one aspect hopefully another aspect does better and the losses can be balance out. When we reached Wagonhammer Ranch, we were able to tour one of his spectacular pastures by hay wagon stopping near the water tubs to get close with the pasture and cattle.

The Wolfe family and the Wagonhammer Ranch have always tried to improve their operation and make their business more profitable.  The family started out as horse traders when they moved from Germany in the late 1800’s.  Just before World War I they switched from horse to cattle trading. Eventually the family run operation integrated dryland cow calf, breeding and genetics, as well as a feedlot business, creating a diverse revenue stream. Wagonhammer uses their own genetics to breed their cows to maintain quality.  The calves are weaned off at 800 pounds using the fence line system, where the cows and calves are moved to opposite sides of the fence but are still able to communicate with each other.  After the weaning period, calves are sent to the feedlot or are used as replacement cows.  The feedlot is medium in size and consists of 10,000 head of finishing cattle. The Wagonhammer feedlot primarily consists of cattle that they buy from sales and other producers.  The feedlot cattle are marketed to three different slaughterhouses. Additionally, the Wagonhammer Ranch has an annual cattle sale where they sell off cattle from other ranches.

A Black  Angus cow drinking water at a  Wagonhammer Ranch
Pictured above: A Black  Angus cow at a  Wagonhammer Ranch.  By switching to  a rotational grazing system the ranch switched from windmill pumped water tubs to electrically pumped water tubs to  provide cattle with consistent access to water, regardless of wind conditions.

At Wagonhammer Ranch, they graze their cattle on dryland pastures in the sand hills. The sand hills are a very fragile ecosystem and proper management practices are critical in terms of sustainability. Rotational grazing is very important in terms of encouraging new plant growth and reducing the effects of wind erosion. The grazing season is 150 days long, with rotations lasting 10 days on each pasture.  Each cow calf pair is given about 15 acres to graze and are moved when 50% of the rotation area is grazed. During the winter months, when the cows are no longer on pasture, they rely mainly on hay, corn stocks and supplements. Pasture recovery from grazing is important because it ensures that the plant species have the energy to regrow. Leaves are important parts of the plants as they collect sunlight and fuel the plant as well as provide food for the cattle. By maintaining a synergistic relationship of grass and cattle, the grazing of leaves results in vigorous growth, often over compensating and allowing for root and shoot growth. The root systems of the native perennial grass species reach 8 to 14 feet deep in order to reach ample supplies of water and nutrients. The grass is also used to make hay and winter feed.

An eroded patch of soil known as a blow out
Pictured above: The soils of the great plains are mainly poorly structured deep  fine sands from  the granite parent material in the rocky mountains . These soils  are extremely sensitive to wind erosion. Known as  “blow-outs” eroded patches in  crop land or  pastures are difficult to stop and reclaim once they start.

This complex synergy between managed cattle and grass has lead to a sustainable pasture for cattle, plants, wildlife and Jay’s business.  Poorly managed pastures are subject to wind erosion.  Once wind erosion creates blowouts they are very hard to stop and may never return to their original state. Jay and Al are also currently dealing with the eastern red cedar, an invasive species. The trees are difficult to remove, in spite of Jay and Al’s efforts to prevent their spread because birds easily spread the seeds.  Jay and Al’s passion and innovation ensure that the land will remain sustainable for years to come. Additionally, some of Jay’s innovation goes beyond the pasture and into his business model.

A four inch soil core of the dryland pastures at Wagonhammer ranch shows the thin organic mat that covers the low organic matter fine sandy soil
Pictured above: A four inch soil core of the dryland pastures at Wagonhammer ranch shows the thin organic mat that covers the low organic matter fine sandy soil. The volumetric soil water content of these sands is about 10 –15 % (at free drainage at the surface) leaving very little plant available water in comparison to most of the soils in South-Western Ontario.

Concluding Remarks

At first glance, ethical water use and dryland cattle operations are not seen as synonymous. However, the water extraction from the Ogallala aquifer for crop use and the potential for nitrate pollution from intensive corn soybean rotations appears to fight the natural flow of energy where cattle ranching on native grasses in a dryland scenario proves to be the best use for the region. Dry land pastures use far less water than regular field crops; therefore do not compete as heavily for water resources under drought reducing tensions between agriculture and domestic users. Additionally the native short grass prairies contain nitrogen-fixing plants, providing a useable nitrogen source for the pasture without additional chemical fertilizer. Chemical nitrogen fertilizers are often over applied in irrigated cropping systems resulting in leaching and pollution of domestic drinking water. If irrigated cropping land in Nebraska was converted to more ethical uses like dryland pastures, tensions between agricultural and domestic uses would be reduced.

Work horses grazing for use at Wagonhammer Ranch.
Pictured above: Work horses grazing for use at Wagonhammer Ranch.