Growing crops with less water

Texas Tribune:
Deep in the Texas Panhandle, where the decline of the Ogallala Aquiferhas left farmers fearful for their future, Harold Grall is hoping his field of tiny green corn plants will survive with minimal watering.

“We’re doing everything that we know possible that we can do to conserve water,” Grall, a corn farmer, said as his pickup bounced toward the 120-acre field.

He planted the cornfield later than most, in an effort to capture more summer rainfall and reduce the need for Ogallala water. He also did not water it before planting the corn seeds, a risky move for land parched after three years of drought.

Grall’s cornfield is part of a closely watched demonstration project aimed at showing farmers how to use less irrigation water on their crops. It was put together by a groundwater authority in the Panhandle that strictly limits the amount of Ogallala water each farmer can pump. The project reflects the harsh reality that has taken hold across the drought-stricken state: farmers, who account for more than half of the water used in Texas, must learn to do more with less, just like cities and industrial plants.

“The Ogallala is a mined aquifer,” said Danny Krienke, a board member of the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District, an authority that spans eight counties and is overseeing the demonstration project. “That means we’re pumping out more than what is being recharged. And agriculture is a big water user. So we have a big responsibility to conserve.”

The North Plains district began its demonstration project in 2010, at a cost of about $300,000 per year. Financing comes from the district as well as state and federal agencies. The idea was to have farmers grow corn, the most common crop in the district, with a little over half the water they would normally sprinkle on a field — while still remaining profitable.

The goal of the demonstration project is to use methods that can be applied immediately and are also cost-effective. One example: watering more efficiently using pivot sprinklers, rather than water-saving technologies like drip irrigation, which farmers say are too expensive.

“We can’t wait 10, 15, 20 years for something to come out that might come out in the future,” said Steve Walthour, the district’s general manager. “We need to do something now.”

This year, 11 farmers are participating (four, including Krienke and Grall, are district board members). They are using methods like planting in dry rather than prewatered earth, leaving larger spaces between plants and leaving old stalks in the fields even as new plants spring up, a technique that can hold the earth’s moisture longer.

Another key is new technology that allows farmers to use soil sensors to obtain more precise information about moisture and sprinkler performance — and read it remotely.

“I can pull out my phone right now and I can show you what every one of mine are doing,” said Brian Bezner, a North Plains board member from Dallam County, scrolling through soil moisture and sprinkler data on his smartphone, miles from his farm.
This story is consistent with this post about how new technology is revolutionizing agriculture and making it more efficient.  The use of soil sensors is just one of those innovations.   It is an area to watch closely.  I just hope that corn is not going into a gas tank instead of someone's mouth.


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