Can you remember back to when you were a kid on those long, sultry summer days where all you wanted was to cool off? Now think back to the pure joy you experienced when your parents turned on the sprinkler for you to run through.
Now imagine that your neighbors are doing the same thing, but with less water, and their neighbors with even less, until people at the end of the block had virtually no water. Well, that’s actually the rainfall pattern in Nebraska.
From the lush, fertile crop ground in the east to the desert-like Sandhills in the west, it’s clear that Nebraska has a very diverse climate. It’s been estimated as you travel across the state from east to west, you will lose an inch of rainfall annually every 50 miles. Since rainfall varies so much across the state, many farmers depend on irrigation during the summer months to help supplement moisture deficiencies.
Water for Food
Water is critically important to the farmers and ranchers in our state to raise our food. Too much rain and fields will be washed out and unable to produce a crop; not enough and plants struggle to even produce an ear or a pod.
Nebraska farmers irrigate nearly 8.5 million acres, more than any other state in the country. Farmers depend on water from a variety of sources in order to raise a crop each year.
As you drive along the interstate, it may seem like farmers constantly run their pivots, but that’s actually not the case. Besides the high diesel or electrical cost to irrigate, over-watering can actually be detrimental to the plant’s growth.
The purpose of irrigation is to supplement rainfall as needed. Many farmers are now adopting technologies that allow them to use less water. By pulling local weather data and installing water sensors in their fields, farmers can know not only when it’s time to irrigate, but exactly how much water should be applied. Sustainable technologies like these are helping farmers produce more grain while using fewer resources and helping to keep the water supply clean and plentiful for you and your family.
So the next time you find yourself sweltering in the summer heat, remember that farmers and ranchers are doing their part to make sure every drop counts.
Water quality is an issue that’s very near and dear to farmers’ hearts. Maintaining a pure, plentiful supply of drinking water is a top concern for farmers.
In recent years, farmers and ranchers have shouldered a disproportionate amount of blame for water quality issues in places like the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, and other locations. While runoff from farms and ranches does play a part in this problem, the issue is much larger than food production.
Nonpoint source pollution is the biggest threat to water quality, and it occurs when snowmelt, rainfall, or irrigation waters run over the land and pick up pollutants, carrying them to nearby waterways. This includes nutrients and sediment from Nebraska’s farms.
Nutrients (specifically nitrogen and phosphorus) come from fertilizers, manure and human sewage. Excessive nutrients cause algae blooms in lakes (making them smelly and making boating difficult), contribute to fish kills, and can cause water to require additional and costly treatment before drinking.
Sediment, or soil, is considered a pollutant when it ends up in Nebraska’s waterways. Weather events and erosion cause sediment from farm fields, construction sites, and stream banks to flow downstream. Sediment fills in lakes, streams and ponds and destroys fish habitats.
What are Farmers Doing to Solve the Problem?
Since most of Nebraska’s land area is devoted to food production, every decision regarding water quality matters. Decisions to improve practices have a cumulative effect to enhance the safety of our water supply.
The three largest areas of focus to help enhance water quality relate to tillage, cover crops, and technology, but there are other conservation measures being used, too.
Tilling (or plowing) is often necessary to get the land ready for planting. And traditionally in Nebraska, farmers till their ground after harvest in the fall, so that they can plant as soon as possible in the spring. This means that their fields are bare all winter long, with topsoil exposed to the elements, creating perfect conditions for erosion when snow melts or spring storms come.
However, many farmers are now embracing a practice known as “conservation tillage” including no-till and strip-till methods.
No-till is just what it sounds like. The ground is not tilled at all. After the crop is harvested, the stubble is left in the field and protects it from erosion over the winter. The stubble also acts as a water filter, keeping excess nutrients from entering waterways. No-till only works with certain crops and certain soil types, so it is not something that can be used on every acre in Nebraska.
Strip-till is another conservation tillage method where GPS technology guides a tiller through the field and small strips are tilled, which is where the seeds will be planted in the spring. This leaves MOST of the land covered with crop stubble over the winter, but works for a different variety of crops.
Cover crops are another way farmers are keeping the soil in place and filtering nutrients. A cover crop is a second crop, planted after the first is harvested or soon before, solely for the purpose of benefitting the soil. These crops grow quickly in the fall and use up excess nutrients, keep the soil from compacting, reduce erosion, and suppress weeds. Many companies in the public and private sectors are dedicating time and money to finding innovative ways to utilize cover crops, including letting cattle graze on them, making this method beneficial on multiple levels.
Farmers are now embracing technology, such as GPS and variable rate applications, in an effort to improve water quality. GPS and variable rate applications give farmers the ability to become more efficient when planting or applying water or nutrients. The use of technology in farming is in its infancy, and while new applications have helped farmers make huge strides in protecting the water quality, we have only scratched the surface of the benefits of precision agriculture.
The Future of Water Quality
Farmers clearly have a vested interest in conservation practices and water quality. The land and water are their livelihood, meaning they will make the best decisions for their operations with the information at hand. Farmers are dedicated to improving and ensuring that future generations have the same, if not better, opportunities.
While farming and ranching does play a large role in water quality, the right solution to this issue will come from all responsible parties acknowledging their part and working together to find the best solution.