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Serious About Stewardship

March 22, 2014
By: Rhonda Brooks, Farm Journal Seeds & Production Editor
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Farmers collaborate to conserve their water resources

Water is a constant worry for farmers whose livelihoods depend on its availability. Even so, one group of farmers in northwest Kansas is voluntarily reducing the amount of water they pull from the Ogallala Aquifer to irrigate the corn, grain sorghum, soybeans and wheat grown in the arid region.

The farmers, whose land covers nearly 99 square miles and 25,000 acres, have agreed to pump 20% less water from the aquifer during the course of five years, explains Mitchell Baalman, a third-generation farmer from Hoxie, Kan. Baalman is one of the leaders of the group, which represents the state’s first Local Enhanced Management Area (LEMA) for water conservation. This year is the second year the agreement has been in place.

"Our aquifer is declining a foot-and-a-half per year," notes Baalman, whose farm, FDK Partnership, encompasses 12,000 crop acres. "There are too many wells pulling water out of there—that’s what it comes down to."

Approximately 195 wells are in the LEMA. On average, the wells pull 31,000 acre-feet of water per year from the shallow Ogallala. The aquifer lies beneath the Great Plains in an area that covers approximately 174,000 square miles and portions of eight states, including Kansas.

A four-year study conducted by researchers at Kansas State University reveals the serious threat the aquifer faces. At the current rate of water use, the study estimates it will be 70% depleted by 2060.

Baalman and the other farmers participating in the LEMA hope their reduced use of water will slow the aquifer’s decline rate and extend local groundwater supplies. State officials check the well pumps to make sure farmers are compliant.

"We’ve had to start thinking different about how we use water, but it’s been a good thing," Baalman says.

In 2013, he says his average well pumped only 12" of water on his farm.  "We had 215-bu. corn, but we had to have some rain in August to make that happen," he acknowledges. "We are still at the mercy of Mother Nature."

Agronomic technology is supporting Baalman’s efforts to reduce water consumption and still produce crop yields that sustain his family operation.

"Flex corn hybrids, strip tillage, no-till, using irrigation standards and mapping are all things farmers are using to make this work," he says.

Baalman says not everyone in his area supports the LEMA. Plus, he is well aware that despite the farmers’ agreement, the aquifer’s long-term viability is still bleak. "Twenty percent won’t be enough of a reduction," he says, "but we had to start somewhere."

Together for a cause. Sometimes, a farmer’s desire to see his operation survive and thrive contributes to unlikely partnerships. That was the case for the management team at Hillside Ranch based in Blaine County, Idaho. The ranch collaborates with MillerCoors and The Nature Conservancy to preserve their water supply.

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - Early Spring 2014

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