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Agriculture and water - assessing the problem
Dr. Victor Martin

We have spent the first few weeks of the new year discussing water in Kansas. With this background, today let’s discuss the problem. A dilemma affecting all of us whether we are involved in agriculture or not. First, how did the state find itself in this situation?

• Agriculture has diversified greatly over the last 40 years in Kansas, especially since the 1990s. Previously, common dryland crops in Western Kansas were primarily wheat and grain sorghum with fallow periods. This diversification has occurred for a variety of reasons including GMO crops, the development of crop varieties, herbicide development, and hybrids better adapted to the climate here, especially in the western half of the state. The eastern portion of the state was always produced a greater variety of crops due to its climate – on average more rainfall, higher humidity, and lower summer temperatures which allowed for more crop diversification and greater income opportunity. Another factor was the passage of Freedom to Farm in 1995, which allowed the expansion of cropping options without any penalty. Finally, as conservation tillage practices were developed, especially no-tillage, to prevent erosion and conserve soil water diversified crop rotations were beneficial and necessary to aid in pest control.  

• The cattle industry, particularly the feedlot sector, plays a key role in a chicken and egg sort of way. With the development of center pivot irrigation, consistent high-yielding corn production became possible. This in turn led to the development of the feedlot industry in Southwest Kansas. Even though Kansas is normally one of the top ten corn producing states, we are often a corn deficit area and have to bring in corn to support feedlot production. And the feedlot industry allows for the meatpacking industry. Without corn production, especially irrigated production, the industries corn production supplies are in jeopardy.  

• Irrigation is probably the major factor of the problem agriculture is facing, even though it is practiced on only three million acres across the state. While a small portion of the total production acreage for the state, it is concentrated in Western Kansas. This production relies on groundwater from the Ogallala Aquifer. The problem is twofold. We are withdrawing more water than is being added and depleting the supply. This is being exacerbated by the fact the state over-allocated water resources. This needs to the last point.

• Finally, climate is adding to the dilemma. Even without the changes the state is experiencing in climate, especially the extremes and deviations from normal patterns, we have allocated the most water resources where we receive the least rainfall on average. This is logical as this is where cropping would benefit the most but where crops need more water to produce the same crop yield as in the eastern half of the state.

Next week: what can be done.

Dr. Victor L. Martin is the agriculture instructor/coordinator for Barton Community College. He can be reached at 620-792-9207, ext. 207.