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Pursuing sustainability through water conservation

Jamie Keyes Published on 24 July 2015

Sustaining a cattle ranch on less than 10 inches of rain is near impossible. Cattle producers across the nation have faced this dilemma and the difficult decisions that quickly follow. Simple water conservation practices can help when those tough years and tough decisions arise – whether it’s planting perennial or annual grasses, accounting for every drop of water or bulldozing ponds.

Start planning now

“If you’re not in a drought, plan for one,” says Texas Alliance for Water Conservation Project Director Rick Kellison. “We’re just one day closer to the next major one.”

As the project director, Kellison helps farmers and ranchers across Texas implement water conservation practices.

“We have seen a decline in the amount of irrigation water available,” Kellison says. “We see some producers looking to transition to either annual or perennial warm-season grasses for livestock production.”

Kellison operates his own half-irrigated, half-dryland farm with 120 cow-calf pairs just north of Lubbock. He transitioned a portion of his acres to WWW B-Dahl old-world bluestem grass, a perennial that is nutritional and does well in the heat, and he found that drip irrigation is the most effective method to apply water.

“If you’re applying water below the surface, and you don’t wet the surface of the soil, you reduce high evaporation tremendously,” Kellison says. “That’s where you are getting more efficient use of what water you do apply.”

In semi-arid areas where hot weather and high winds are common, drip irrigation and applying compost to increase the soil’s water capacity goes a long way when a drought comes, according to Kellison.

“I don’t try to maximize my stocking rate,” Kellison says. “I use my irrigation more as a drought mitigation tool than to just maximize production.”

Unconventional conservation practices

The northeast Oklahoma ranch has been around since the 1960s and has seen many tough years, but the primary purpose has stayed the same: Cattle come first. Kane Cattle Company relies wholly on rainwater, and through the years they have implemented water conservation practices so their cattle always have a drink.

Multi-generational rancher John Kane has found that diving into ponds with a bulldozer and cleaning them out has served his operation well. According to Kane, through the years sediment settles and slowly destroys the ponds, making them shallower.

“We clean out our ponds so they are more efficient in holding the water we do get,” Kane says. “Then when we get a bit of rain, it doesn’t soak right into the dry ground; it collects in our ponds better and we are able to hold more water.”

During the terrible drought a few years back, the pond levels were low, and Kane then noticed they hadn’t been cleared in a few decades.

“You have to be a little optimistic in those tough years,” Kane says. “During that time, you can get in there and clean out what you can, and then the little rain you do get, the pond will be more efficient and better at holding it.”

Because this cattle operation doesn’t pull from aquifers or water wells, ponds and waterways are essential to approximately 900 cow-calf pairs and 2,000 yearlings. Pond maintenance isn’t a typical practice of water conservation, but Kane has pointed out that it works well.

“You hold more water than in previous years, and then when that drought comes along, you’ve helped yourself,” Kane says. “You’ll have water longer because you have more of it.”

Building back up through every drop

After making the tough decision to sell half his herd a couple years back, Texas cattle rancher Glenn Schur is taking steps to improve his water conservation practices and sustain his operation for the years to come.

The Plainview, Texas, farm is slowly increasing herd numbers back up, and they’re currently up to 100 cow-calf pairs. Schur has incorporated different technology to report his water use.

He uses AquaSpy’s Vector Probe and John Deere’s Field Connect to gauge the soil moisture levels, and he also keeps his eye on evapotranspiration (ET) data, the total movement of water from plants, soil and bodies of water, to guarantee his irrigation is as effective as possible.

“If you know that you are measuring something, then it’s easier to learn how to monitor it,” Schur says. “So we are not applying any more than we have to.”

On other acres that had very little irrigation, Schur planted Brosig B-Dahl bluestem grass to convert them into pasture. Schur says that it is drought-tolerant and yields a lot of forage for the little amount of water it uses.

“Water management is not just one specific practice,” Schur says. “It encompasses the whole operation, especially when you have a drought, and we have learned how to manage what little rainfall we receive.”

During the terrible drought in 2011, there wasn’t any way to save much water, Schur says. Now he is just trying to ensure sustainability by planning every step of his operation and implementing these water conservation practices.

“Even in the last three to four years, it has just been tough,” Schur says. “But we’re still trying to manage the amount of water we apply and maximize crop production on the least amount of water.”  end mark

Steps to decide what works for you

Rick Kellison points out that every operation has different attributes, and one water conservation plan doesn’t fit all. But Kellison says these simple steps will help you decide what practices work best for your operation.

  • Evaluate
    Look at the operation as a whole and figure out the positive and negative attributes. What do we have to work with?

  • Determine
    What can we improve on? What is the weakest link? What do we need to do?

  • Mitigate
    After you have evaluated and determined what needs to be done, then do your best to implement the practices to become more sustainable.