Water challenge: Aquifer’s decline on mind of feeder

Tom Jones knows he doesn’t know everything.

But he knows how to put the people who do know more than him together in the same room to find solutions to complex questions. And it’s this approach to problem solving that Jones hopes can find the answer to the most pressing issue of the Great Plains economy—the declining Ogallala Aquifer.

Jones is the managing partner of Hy-Plains Feed Yard, just outside of Montezuma, Kansas, in the heart of cattle-feeding country. His family has been finishing cattle for generations on corn irrigated by the Ogallala Aquifer. As such, they and their colleagues have been major economic drivers for the region. And everything good about living and working in western Kansas can trace back to that one resource, the Ogallala, Jones explained.

So, when he started to hear about declining levels in the aquifer, it got him to thinking. What would happen to the feedyard if it were to dry up? What would that mean for the economy of Montezuma?

But, most importantly, how could anyone ask one segment of agriculture over another to take an economic hit to preserve the resource for future generations to use?

The Kansas Department of Commerce asked those same questions in 2012 and found that the irrigated cropland over the Ogallala has a $5 billion value. It accounts for 10 percent of the Kansas economy and 4.3 percent of the jobs in the state.

Just one less irrigated acre over the Ogallala, according to KDC, will lead to:

• A loss of $2,200 per acre land resale value;

• 122.5 fewer bushels of corn per acre;

• Two fewer cattle on feed; and

• A loss of nearly $4,000 per acre per year.

The Ogallala question kept nagging at him, so Jones did what he does best—he put together a consortium of experts and put the feedyard’s resources to work.

“We need to invest in tomorrow, not just today,” Jones said. Governmental agencies and universities can do much, but even private entities, like his, could contribute to the solutions as well.

Feed suppliers

The first part of the complex challenge of the Ogallala is the irrigated farming economy that relies upon it. According to the Kansas Department of Agriculture, irrigated farmland accounts for 80 to 85 percent of the nearly 4 million acre feet of water used each year in the state. Of all the water used in Kansas each year, 90 percent is pumped from ground water sources.

About 3 million acres in Kansas are irrigated, and account for just over 25 percent of the total value of Kansas crop production. Over half of the irrigated land over the Ogallala is used to grow corn, and in 2012, according to the KDC, 68 percent of the corn produced in Kansas, or 258 million bushels, was grown on irrigation. It’s because of the higher value of crops grown that irrigated land values are about 30 percent higher than non-irrigated land values, according to the KDC, which then translates into higher tax bases for rural towns and counties.

Any conservation efforts for the Ogallala have to start at the farm level, but asking that one segment to shoulder the cost isn’t feasible, Jones explained. The KDC found in 2012 that just reducing applied water by 13 inches on an acre of irrigated corn can translate into a loss of about $140 an acre for a producer.

But, what if there was a way to introduce a cropping system that still retains the value of irrigated ground, conserves applied water, while improving soil health and can lead to more profitable beef cattle? That question led to Jones calling the Noble Research Institute in Ardmore, Oklahoma, and talking with Myriah Johnson about implementing research into new cropping systems on a few irrigated circles of corn in western Kansas.

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“The Noble Foundation is about conserving soil and water and helping farmers and ranchers be good stewards of the land,” Johnson explained. Since its inception the Noble Foundation has worked with seedstock producers to find best management practices in a grazing setting.

The research Noble will conduct with Hy-Plains and its farmer partners will try to find a cropping system under limited irrigation that can best utilize the water to grow a forage crop to be grazed by cattle. They’ll look at forage crops like triticale, forage sorghums, Bermuda and native grasses, among others, as well as implementing cover crops, to see just how many pounds of beef per unit of water they can produce. And the research will also try to answer just how long should a calf graze on this new system before it enters the finishing lot to find that optimal point of return per unit of water.

“We want to find how to produce more forage, while still improving soil organic matter and increasing water holding capacity of the soil and water filtration rates,” Johnson explained. In a region that is plagued by drought, she said increasing water holding capacity can improve the land’s ability to resist drought and recover quickly when drought does return.

“Of course, we need to be mindful of the seasonality component to cropping systems. We have to find a crop rotation that works for this region.”

“The driving message is that we are looking at crop production per unit of water applied,” Johnson said. Rather than solely on dollars returned per acre.

Seedstock customers

The conventional model of cattle feeding is to get calves in at light weights and pour the groceries to them for as long as possible to get them to heavy finished weights. The feedyard, after all, is selling that service and it makes money with noses in the bunks.

Conventional wisdom says cattle that are grazed longer outside of the feedyard don’t make the feedyard money, but Jones and his seedstock customers are finding that’s not always the case.

See, over the last few years, with the advancements in data collection and processing, Jones has seen a trend in the cattle coming into Hy-Plains Feed Yard. Particularly from customers who retained ownership to capture the data on their cattle and use it to make selection decisions in their herds. It led him to install a set of research pens equipped with Grow Safe feedbunks that use electronic ear tags to track an individual animal’s feed intake, eating habits, feeding behavior and even adverse weather events that could change their patterns.

Jones showed a pen of young bulls on a feeding trial. That day a crew was collecting data such as hip height and the distance between the bull’s hook and pin bones and entering it all into an algorithm that predicts how big the bull will grow, and how many days on feed it will take to reach that optimal target weight.

The goal is to collect as much data for the seedstock partners who place their cattle at Hy-Plains so that they can select for efficient animals. And it’s working.

“The genetics of our cattle have changed dramatically over these last few years,” Jones explained. The cattle of today coming into his feedyard are nothing like the cattle of his grandfather’s generation. They utilize feed more efficiently, to reach finished weights quicker and still grade Choice. It was a noticeable enough change that it had Jones rethinking everything he was taught about finishing cattle.

“What if we were to bring cattle into the feedyard at heavier weights, at up to 1,450 pounds?” Jones asked. “And then just feed them enough corn to finish them out, sort of like topping off the tank, before they are harvested?” Heavier, older cattle would likely face fewer costly health problems, unlike younger calves with naïve immune systems. And, this could reduce the amount of corn needed to finish that calf.

So they tried it, and found that larger cattle coming into the feedyard had higher average daily gains and on average increased profit by $9 per head. They were fed basic rations of triticalage, wet distillers grains, hay and a protein supplement. Interesting to note, the number of cattle grading Choice and Prime were higher too, and it could be due to that longer time grazing.

“We are seeing the impact of selecting for high growth in our cattle,” Jones said. “This calls for shifting mindsets, though. We always thought more is better. More crop per acre. More pounds on an animal. But what if we step back and shift the mindset to optimization?” The more data Hy-Plains collects, the better Jones can understand just when a calf in the yard reaches the peak of the bell curve for converting feed into meat. Understanding that part of the puzzle leads to better utilization of corn, and thus the water pumped to grow that corn.

“All this is a system and we want to learn,” Jones said. “We can’t think about this in isolation, there’s just a lot of moving pieces to the whole thing.” Changing one aspect of the economy growing on the Ogallala can put another aspect out of balance.

Hope for the future

“Producers understand that we all need to do something to conserve the Ogallala, but we can’t ask farmers to conserve water by themselves,” Jones said. “This is one way to try to conserve water without losing money in the long run. It could make a big impact.”

Beyond the immediate impact to the region and the Ogallala, Jones said innovative thinking like this can really be attractive to consumers of tomorrow. Jones works with large industry partners who have strong consumer bases who want “sustainability.” These big ideas and research projects are small steps, but they show industry partners and consumers that agriculture is trying to be sustainable and leave something for the next generation, Jones said.

No one person, no one segment, no one entity has the single answer to the question as complex as the Ogallala Aquifer.

But Tom Jones at Hy-Plains Feed Yard is trying his best to bring them all together under one roof to collaborate. The future, he said, is too important to not at least try.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or [email protected].