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When the Water Runs Out

The South Plains region of Texas is known for its abundant cotton production. For generations, farmers in this region have relied on the Ogallala aquifer for irrigation, which has enabled them to produce high yields of cotton. However, in recent years, the aquifer has been rapidly depleting, leading to concerns about the future of cotton farming in the region. This raises the question: what will cotton farmers in the South Plains do when the water gets to a point where it can no longer support irrigated cotton?

The Ogallala aquifer is the primary source of water for irrigation in the South Plains region, which is a major cotton-growing area. However, the aquifer is being depleted at an alarming rate, due to decades of overuse and drought conditions. Anyone can pull well logs from the late 60's the see wells that used to produce 1200 gpm now are dwindled down to 85 gallons per minute.

According to a report by the Texas Water Development Board, the Ogallala aquifer in the High Plains region of Texas has declined by an average of 9.85 feet between 2011 and 2017. This is a significant decline, and if it continues at this rate, it is estimated that the aquifer will be depleted in the region by 2050.

This is a major concern for cotton farmers in the South Plains region, who rely on the aquifer for irrigation. With declining water levels, farmers are already seeing reduced yields and higher costs for pumping water from deeper levels. In the long term, it may no longer be feasible to grow irrigated cotton in the region. So what happens when the water gets to levels unable to water cotton?

With declining water availability for cotton irrigation, some farmers are switching to cattle grazing, which requires less water. But don't start selling the center pivots yet. With rising input costs for feed, producers need to rethink feed strategies to maximize profit. Successful grazing systems have already been studied an implemented with an integration of center pivot irrigation, without depleting the aquifer further. Lisa Baxter, a Ph.D. student in forage systems, explored forage species and grazing techniques to construct grazing systems that limit costly inputs and maximize productivity without jeopardizing environmental resources. The objective was to compare animal performance in an 1.) improved grass-legume pasture to a 2.) grass-only grazing system. “Both systems contained native grass pastures of WW-B.Dahl Old World bluestem (OWB) and annual teff grass,” Baxter says. “In the grass-legume system, we interseeded alfalfa and yellow sweetclover into OWB at 15 percent of the forage composition. A small area of alfalfa and tall wheatgrass was managed as a protein bank. This smaller area contained 70 percent alfalfa and 30 percent tall wheatgrass.

“A protein bank allowed us to allocate our limited water resources onto a small land area which generates a high-quality supplement to other, warm-season grass-dominant pastures. Including legumes into the diet of grazing steers increased crude protein and forage digestibility, which improved animal weight gains from 150 pounds per acre in the grass-only system to 168 pounds per acre in the grass-legume system."

"Overall, these novel grazing management strategies offer promising methods for providing less water-demanding forage production on the Southern High Plains.” Chuck West, director for the College of Agricultural Science and National Resources (CASNR) Water Center at Texas Tech University says:

“To improve the fair forage quality of bluestem, we grow it in a mixture of alfalfa and sweetclover and apply no more than 9 inches of irrigation water per year. The alfalfa-tall wheatgrass protein bank receives no more than 12 inches of irrigation per year. Over the past three years, we’ve averaged about 7 inches of irrigation on the bluestem-alfalfa mixture and approximately 10 inches on the wheatgrass-legume mixture.”

“Why do we use alfalfa?” West asks. “Alfalfa has a deep root system which allows it to use soil moisture from a greater depth than many of the other forage species. The great pasture potential of alfalfa is unrealized because most people think it needs 36 inches or more of irrigation. It does for high-yielding hay crops, but not for stocker beef cattle grazing.

“Fifteen to 20 percent alfalfa content mixed with the small area of alfalfa managed as a protein bank can produce an average daily gain of 2.1 pounds. This gain is 0.33 pounds higher than gain produced by steers grazing grass alone. When good-quality, water-efficient forage crops are raised with low to medium water input, the efficiency of converting water to animal gain becomes very good,” West says.

Cattle ranching also has the advantage of being less reliant on weather conditions. Cotton farming requires specific weather conditions, including adequate rainfall and a certain number of heat units, to produce high yields. In contrast, cattle ranching can be more resilient to weather fluctuations and can provide a more stable income for farmers.

However, not all cotton farmers may be able to switch to cattle ranching. There are significant differences in the skills, equipment, and infrastructure required for the two industries. For example, cattle ranching requires different types of equipment, such as fencing, corrals, and handling facilities, compared to cotton farming. Cattle ranching also requires different knowledge and skills, such as animal husbandry and pasture management.

In addition, some farmers may not have access to suitable land for cattle ranching, or may not have the financial resources to make the necessary investments in equipment and infrastructure. It may also be challenging for farmers who have been involved in cotton farming for generations to switch to a completely different industry.

The depletion of the Ogallala aquifer in the South Plains region of Texas is a significant challenge for cotton farmers, who may need to find alternative sources of income once yields begin to decline. While cattle ranching may be a viable option for some farmers, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The decision to switch to cattle ranching will depend on a variety of factors, including access to suitable land, financial resources, and skills and knowledge required. Only time will tell whether all South Plains cotton farmers will become cattle ranchers, but it is clear that they will need to adapt to changing conditions to ensure their long-term viability.

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