Day 6 - Friday
theme: Climate change; Ethics of water use
By: Sarah Campbell, Kyle Craven, Chris Macfarlane and Colbey Templeman
Day five of the Midwest Tour focused on two themes: the ethics of water use and dryland pasture and cattle management. On route to a field demonstration of a working irrigation system, Bill Kranz, an extension specialist from the University of Nebraska, introduced us to Nebraska's water rights, restrictions, and the ethics of water use in agriculture. With this year's drought, the ethics of water use surrounding agriculture has become progressively more concerning. Our first stop was Dennis and Paul Kucher's soybean field that was being irrigated with a centre pivot system where they provided us with an overview of their irrigation practices. Following our visit, we travelled to the Wagonhammer Ranch, a cattle operation located in Nebraska's Sandhills near Bartlett, Nebraska. At the ranch, Jay Wolf, the owner and manager of the farm educated us on how he manages his dryland pasture and cattle. It was thought-provoking to witness how environmental conditions can change production methods, and to compare the differences between Ontario and Nebraka's crop and beef production.
Ethics of Water Use: Bill Kranz & Dennis and Paul Kucher
The Ogallala aquifer is the single most important source of water in the High Plains region, providing nearly all the water for residential, industrial and agricultural use. Nebraska covers 65% of the Ogallala aquifer that extends from South Dakota to Texas. Parts of the aquifer are 1500 feet deep, and the majority is located under the Nebraska Sandhills. The water of the Ogallala aquifer is of very high quality, with extremely low salinity. Bill Kranz brought to our attention the environmental concern of nitrogen leaching to the Ogallala due to the absence of impermeable soil layers. In the past ten to fifteen years, there has been a transformation of water distribution from surface to centre pivot irrigation. Ten years ago, 30-35% of irrigation in Nebraska was centre pivot. Currently, 82% of irrigation uses a centre pivot system which is much less labour intensive and has higher water use efficiency than surface irrigation. Nebraska has 100,000 registered irrigation wells with approximately 95,000 active wells. The average irrigation pivot is designed to cover a quarter section covering 130 acres of 160 acres. There are 55,000 to 60,000 active centre pivots. It is also the home to all four major pivot manufacturers.
In the state of Nebraska, surface water is governed by state departments and operates on the "first in time, first in right" principle in which whoever obtains water rights first has priority over all those succeeding them. Ground water, on the other hand, is governed by the twenty-three Natural Resource Conservation Districts (NRCD) in Nebraska. The NRCD is a state agency that focuses on soil and water conservation and has taxing authority. In southwestern Nebraska, the NRCD has decreased groundwater usage from 20 inches per year in 1978, to the current 13 inches per year. Even with these allocations, the ground water levels are still declining. The NRCD also regulates the permits for drilling new irrigation wells; none of which are permitted at this time for 2013 due to declining water levels. There are currently no costs incurred for extracting groundwater. The rights for water use have been prioritized as domestic, industrial and agricultural, respectively. This hierarchy of allocations has resulted in social conflicts in recent history which will only become worse into the future.
At the farm of Dennis and Paul Kucher, we learned about how they operate their corn and soybean rotation. They plant both corn and soybeans in 30 inch rows under a no till and experimental strip till system. A proportion of their acres are irrigated using centre pivot systems. Centre pivot irrigation systems costs vary significantly based on a number of factors including well depth, pump size, and power source. The average cost of a centre pivot irrigation system is $100,000 with a pre-existing well. With good maintenance practices, an irrigation system can last up to twenty years. Dennis and Paul have estimated that the cost of the investment on a new system will be recovered by increased yields in four to five years. It costs them $4.00 per acre per inch of water to irrigate their land. Under irrigation, they expect a yield increase of 10 to 12 bushels per inch of water for corn and 3 to 3.5 bushels per inch for soybeans. This follows the law of diminishing returns and is also dependent on natural rainfall. Other factors need to be considered to ensure these yields such as chemical inputs and the efficacy of the irrigation system. In the past, Dennis and Paul have used their pivot irrigation system as a cost-effective method of applying fertilizers and pesticides.
It is critical to irrigate crops at certain growth stages. In corn, these times include the 12 to 14 leaf stage, tasseling and ear development. Irrigation in soybeans is most critical in late season to avoid flower abortion and ensure pod development.
Evaporation losses are a concern with centre pivot systems. As a way to reduce water evaporation losses, a narrower spread pattern with a higher volume of water applied is used. A newer technology of drop nozzles can achieve this by reducing evaporation losses by 3% when compared to top nozzles. However, in tall crops, this technology can become problematic since the crop intercepts the water resulting in a non-uniform water application.
Land costs are heavily influenced by the presence of water development. Irrigated land sells for $7,000 to $10,000 per acre while dryland sells for $5,000 to $8,000 per acre. Land rent is highly variable depending upon the rental terms. It can range from $150 to $250 per acre for dryland, and $350 to $400 for irrigated land. To build on the knowledge acquired from previous days, we asked Dennis and Paul about the Farm Bill. They stated that crop insurance was the most important part of the program to them, and they split their coverage into dryland and irrigated production. To participate in crop insurance, they must insure all of their acres within the county. They also stated that coverage was only purchased up to the subsidized level of crop insurance, as they have taken very few losses on irrigated crops. With regards to their marketing strategy, they informed us that they typically forward contract 40% of their production. With this year's drought and associated production losses, this may result in closer to 70% of their production.
Dryland Pasture and Cattle Management: Jay Wolf - Wagonhammer Ranch
Our next stop was in Bartlett, Nebraska, the largest town in the 576 square mile county. During our short travel from Norfolk, Nebraska, we saw a drastic change in the topography, vegetation, and soil type as we entered the Sandhills of Nebraska, a sand dune grassland desert, suitable for dryland cow-calf pastures. This geographical region is a primary recharge area for the Ogallala aquifer due to the beach sand soil texture that allows for rapid absorption of rainfall. The rapid absorption results in negligible water erosion, and rapid regeneration of the underwater aquifer. The groundwater level ranges from 0 to 75 feet below the surface to a depth of 100 to 1000 feet.
The Wagonhammer Ranch, located in the Nebraska Sandhills, consists of 35,000 acres across three locations. There are four primary divisions of the operation: club calf production, breeding stock production, commercial calf production, and a 5,000 head feedlot operation. The operation is home to 2,200 cows. In 1993, Jay Wolf introduced rotational grazing which has doubled his production level without expanding his pasture acreage. These pastures contain a large variety of native grasses with high drought tolerance. Pastures are managed by the cows through rotation. His stocking density is eleven acres per one cow-calf pair over a 150 day grazing season. They also utilize dormant season grazing for winter feed supplies, supplementing this with a distiller's product.
Wagonhammer Ranch has received about 5 inches of rainfall during this year's drought. A normal year would see 25 inches of precipitation in the region. This year's drought has drastically changed their original plans for winter feeding and pasture management. They were proactive by creating a contingency plan to meet their needs under drought conditions without sacrificing production. Jay Wolf stressed the long term impacts of being forced to downsize cow numbers. The long term effect of selling off your productive asset at a discount, to buy back in at high prices hurts financial performance. Thus, you can justify spending considerable money on feed to keep a herd together. His approach was purchasing drought damaged corn for forage, putting up 7,000 tons of this product. Dry conditions also allowed forages to be harvested from drought impacted wetlands. He has also rented cornstalk land to pasture cows on in the winter. Jay Wolf removed yearling heifers from the range to feedlots, to reduce the number of cattle grazing. In response to the poor regrowth of drought stressed grasses, the rotation was delayed to allow grasses to recover. This year, in particular, the benefits of his planned grazing system have been more pronounced due to the sustained production levels despite the severe drought.
A successful animal breeding program is imperative to all divisions of Jay Wolf's operation. Wagonhammer Ranch is primarily an Angus based herd. Purebred Angus and Charolais herds are maintained for seedstock. The commercial herd is crossbred, and maintained at about a 2/3 Angus, 1/3 Charolais ratio. The club calf production is carried out by a crossbred herd. Natural service is used on the commercial herd, while the purebred, club calf production and heifers to be marketed as breeding stock are artificially inseminated.
Weaning animals can be very stressful for both animals and handlers. Wagonhammer Ranch has adopted fence-line weaning to reduce these stresses. Visual and vocal interaction between mother and calf reduces the negative impacts on health associated with weaning stresses.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would connect the Alberta oilsands to oil refineries near the Gulf of Mexico was to run through the Nebraska Sandhills. Although the risk of contamination to the aquifer was deemed minimal, the pipeline would still pose a threat to the Sandhills. Reestablishing vegetation on the disturbed land would be problematic as it is very susceptible to wind erosion. The original proposal was to have the pipeline travel through the Wagonhammer Ranch property. Jay Wolf disagreed with this route as it would disturb highly erodible land. Eventually, the proposed location was moved further east, out of the Sandhills.
As with most farms, adding value is the primary objective to maximize profitability. Wagonhammer Ranch does this through land use, calf club markets and finishing their own calves.
Overall, today's tours were very engaging. The speakers informed us about the challenges that climate, topography and weather can have on their operations. The use of technology and careful management allows for the utilization of land that may not otherwise be profitable. Some of the challenges faced by these farmers can be related to Canadian agriculture that will allow students to take home management tips, as well as a realization of the challenges faced by other farmers, and the solutions they have implemented to be profitable.