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Agriculture and water – dryland solutions
Dr. Victor Martin

This column spent the month of January examining water in agriculture in Kansas; where is comes from; how it is used, and the challenges the state in general, not just agriculture, faces. One item not discussed was the quality of our surface and groundwater supplies.  Pollution of these waters continues to present challenges. Soil erosion in our surface waters continues. Chemical pollution from fertilizers and pesticides in both surface and groundwater. This chemical pollution comes not just from agriculture but industry and residential sources. Progress has been made in these areas but more work is necessary. It’s important to remember that the water-use-efficiency of agriculture in the Twenty-First Century is light years ahead of even thirty years ago and this applies to both crop and livestock production. Today though, let’s focus on the water supply.

First, dryland agriculture:

• Since dryland production relies on precipitation, the main goal is not to waste that source. With apologies, this will be quite general. First, maximize the infiltration of moisture into the soil through surface crop residues and reducing tillage. However, this will require solutions for weed control problems. New technologies from GMO crop design for herbicide tolerance to new chemistries.  The use of crop rotations where practical for two reasons. First, to allow for better weed control. Second, to vary crop-rooting patterns between grass and broadleaf crops. And the development of crop rotations that minimize soil water loss from evaporation and more efficiently use soil water through transpiration. Even the best fallow system is not very efficient in storing water.

• The continued breeding of traditional crops through conventional means and genetic engineering. This must focus on improved pest tolerance, increased water-use-efficiency, and increased fertilizer efficiency. Another factor in breeding is the development of nontraditional crops adapted to conditions. This has already been accomplished for the western half of Kansas with crops such as soybeans and corn. The challenge is having somewhere to take the product and somewhere to market. This is already somewhat of a problem for those wishing to grow crops like sunflowers and winter canola.

• Along with the first two points, switching to more water efficient crops. Producers can also select crops and cultural practices whose life cycle better fits normal rainfall patterns. A major challenge is to switch in a manner that allows for the support of the feedlot industry. Another option for some would be to move away from grain/seed production to more forage based production provided they can utilize the forage or have a ready market for it.

• Changing cultural practices to better utilize water also plays a role. Examples are adjusting planting dates, selecting shorter maturing varieties, decreasing tillage, more aggressive fallow period chemical weed control.

• Finally, some areas, whether due to soil type, typography, or precipitation patterns are poorly suited for traditional crop production but excellent for permanent pasture. Well-established and maintained perennial pasture with adapted grasses achieves two things. Better efficiency of precipitation is possible and after establishment these pastures require fewer inputs to be productive.

Next week: possible solutions for irrigated agriculture.

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