Iowa Public Television


Nebraska Farmers Deploy Water Management Strategies

posted on September 17, 2010

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We'd be remiss if we didn't talk a little bit about one of the nation's premier agricultural showcases here in Grand Island, Nebraska.

One hundred thousand guests are expected to attend this year's run of Husker Harvest Days, where more than 600 exhibitors display and demonstrate the latest and greatest agricultural innovations.

The three-day event also features hundreds of acres of field demonstrations highlighting cutting-edge harvesting machinery, state-of-the-art tillage implements, precision farming equipment, and much, much more.

In its 33rd year, Husker Harvest Days, is billed as the nation's largest, totally irrigated working farm show. Thanks Due to timely and abundant rains, though, the irrigation systems were idled much of the growing season.

But that doesn't mean there will be abundant moisture in the months -- let alone years -- ahead. And as Clay Masters, from NET Television in Nebraska explains, farmers and ranchers alike rely heavily on water management strategies to ensure bin-busting yields.

It's been said that a vibrant agricultural industry is capable of insulating a state … protecting it from downturns in the economy. But what happens when Mother Nature doesn't cooperate? For most of the past decade, Nebraska farmers have coped with drought…and producers like Jerry Stahr, who farms in the eastern part of the state, have implemented water management practices.

Jerry Stahr, York, Nebraska: "As time goes on and as you learn… you can get by with less water, a lot of the crops have better root systems, they're a lot more tolerant to dry conditions than they were in years past."

Nearly two-thirds of the Cornhusker State sits atop the vast Ogallala aquifer. And farmers get around dry times by irrigating their crops. But Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center, says irrigation comes with its own set of challenges.

Brian Fuchs, National Drought Mitigation Center: "We talk about water rights for surface water issues, and then we talk about how does ground water pumping impact those surface water flows, and what's the connection… and some of that's been in the courts recently."

One of the cases focusing on the relationship between groundwater and surface water is in south central Nebraska along the Republican River… A compact was drafted in the 1940s for Nebraska to comply with sending a minimum amount of water downstream to Kansas. But the agreement didn't take into account the impact pumping groundwater would have on the river. And for decades, the two states have been tied up in court battles trying to work out a deal to get Kansas the water or payments in lieu of the precious resource. But even in parts of the country where compacts are not dictating irrigation, producers must be stringent about how much water they pump.

Brian Fuchs, National Drought Mitigation Center: "Many times we say the end of the drought is the beginning of the next one, there's really not a clear point in time when you can say we need 3 inches of rain and the drought is over for us."

In addition to weather issues, Nebraska's farmers and ranchers also have been challenged by the recession.

In recent years, many livestock producers have struggled to stay afloat. Todd Eggerling runs Bluestem Valley Farms… a cow/calf operation in southeastern Nebraska. Faced with unseasonable weather and tighter financial resources, he's been forced to make decisions on a day-to-day basis.

Todd Eggerling, Bluestem Valley Farms: "We had a storm late in the year when we didn't have all our feed sources put up,. Reduced feed by 60 percent – such a rough winter went thru reserve, decision was to reduce cow numbers to conserve without having money go out of pocket, longer grazing seasons with less animals this year."

Eggerling says an abundance of rain this year has allowed him to replenish his feed supplies. Nevertheless, he relies heavily on water management strategies.

Todd Eggerling, Bluestem Valley Farms: "A lot of little things we do on a daily basis that help you in dry periods. Long term goal is don't do anything detrimental to grass before you destroy next year's growth…you can do 10 years of damage in one season."

The National Drought Mitigation Center is launching a web tool for water management in time of drought. Fuchs says having a plan in place is vital for producers… so when the pocketbook is tight and Mother Nature isn't cooperating, producers can still turn a profit. For Market to Market, I'm Clay Masters.

Tags: agriculture crops Nebraska news rural Rural Economic Summit water