Farms on the Kansas High Plains have long produced a bevy of crops and livestock. Now, a new type of operation is taking root in the southwest and northwest parts of the state called water technology farms.
In 2016, Tom Willis established the first of what are now 15 water technology farms in the state on his grain and forage operation near Garden City. Through the three-year pilot program he hopes to reduce the amount of water he uses for crops by 50%.
“I want to prove we can conserve water and still achieve profitable yields using the technologies we are pioneering on my farm,” he says.
The lofty goal is one of Willis’ personal efforts to help preserve the Ogallala Aquifer, which fuels crops on the High Plains via irrigation. Research indicates with current water use rates, the aquifer will be 70% depleted by 2064.
Some of the technologies Willis is evaluating include:
- Using telemetry to determine water incorporation in the soil and crop root growth and structure.
- Evaluating different crops and crop rotations, including the use of cover crops and cattle.
- Comparing a precision mobile drip irrigation system (PMDI), branded as Dragon-Line, to traditional center pivot irrigation using low-pressure spray nozzles.
So far, Willis and his advisers say the research program is working as they had hoped.
“In 2016, in terms of efficiency, we saw 27% less evaporation with the mobile drip irrigation than with traditional pivot irrigation,” explains
Jonathan Aguilar, a Kansas State Extension water resource engineer and technical adviser on some of the farms.
Willis says the No. 1 benefit he’s gained from the drip system is a 10% to 15% savings in fertilizer. “I put most of my fertilizer on through the pivot, and with the Dragon-Line I didn’t lose it to evaporation or wind.”
With the Dragon-Line PMDI system, hoses are retrofitted to the center pivot in place of the nozzles. The pivot then drags the hoses through the crop, which slowly dribble water on the soil as they go.
Willis says pivot repairs in 2016 were much less in fields where he used the mobile drip system. “The wheels don’t get muddy and wet and create ruts,” he explains.
As for water savings in 2016, Willis says that’s difficult to judge because it was fairly wet in southwest Kansas. However, Willis says he has seen a savings in water use this year, thanks to the use of soil moisture probes that indicated he had been overwatering. With one well, in soybeans, he went from pumping 650 gal. per minute to using 520 gal. per minute.
“Because I wasn’t pumping that well as hard, the static water line in that well went up 15',” he says.
Aguilar says farmers value seeing how the various water technologies perform on a whole-field basis. “These aren’t just small plots; some of this technology is being used on 1,250 acres,” he adds.
So far, Willis says the program gives him hope he will be able to provide his son, Josh, and his family a long-term future in farming. The only way that can happen, he says, is if the Ogallala Aquifer continues to provide water for thirsty crops for many years to come.