MidWest Tour Day 6

Norfolk, Bartlett and Ogallala, Nebraska...

By Aodin MacDonell, Julie Milne, Rebecca Redpath, and Pat Unger

panaramic view of corn field with pivot overhead irrigation
Midwest tour class of 2018 with fresh Ogallala Aquifer water

Ethics of water use

 Overview:

The ethics of water use was the theme of our morning when Dr. Bill Kranz tagged along on our bus ride to our first stop. Bill is an Extension Professor of the University of Nebraska and educated us on the Ogallala Aquifer, a 174,000 square mile aquifer that has 2/3 of its water stored under Nebraska. The landscape that we ventured into was dry sand plains with minimal trees. While the area used to be grasslands for supporting buffalo herds, crops are now predominant. However, these crops require irrigation in order to thrive. There are 8.6 million acres under irrigation in Nebraska, which is about 25% of the land. Issues surrounding the Ogallala Aquifer include the lack of water rights and regulations with using the ground water supply. While water use permits are required to apply for surface water rights, groundwater is controlled by whether the general public is content with the management practices of certain farmers. In Bill’s opinion, irrigation is not long term sustainable and this land will return to dryland farming in an attempt to lengthen the life of the aquifer since irrigation uses more than 80% of Nebraska’s water use. In some areas of Nebraska the aquifer is decreasing 3 to 5 feet per year and since they have been pumping it for 50 years, they may only have 50 years of the aquifer left.

Bill took us to Midplains Ag where the owner Richard Uhrenholdt, and his assistant Ryan Hemenway, gave us information on Rich’s family operation where they farm 1400 acres of which about 1040 acres are irrigated with 8 centre pivot irrigation systems. They grow corn and soybeans, and that is mainly what is grown in the area.

comparison of two corn cobs
Non-irrigated corn (left) compared
to irrigated corn (right)

There are a few producers of popcorn and potatoes in the area that cater to smaller markets. Weed control has been challenging in his production. An interesting point that Richard brought up was how using Round Up for weed control has been far more efficient in conservation of the land than the previous aggressive conventional tillage that severely increased erosion. Richard and Ryan took us to see an up-close view of a centre pivot irrigation system. We compared the differences between irrigated corn and non-irrigated corn from outside the pivot range.

Water use in Nebraska is allotted in multi-year contracts, and each land owner has an allotment that they can divvy up over the length of the contracts. Water conservation is governed by the Natural Resource Districts. There are 23 watersheds in Nebraska and one Natural Resource District for each. The boards are elected at the same time as the presidential elections and vary in size, with an average of 15 members. The districts have governance power, they set water use levies and then spend the money on water monitoring and setting laws.

The Numbers

The typical corn yield here in Nebraska is 250 Bushel/acre. This is quite surprising in an area where there is only 14-36 inches of annual precipitation. A standard corn crop needs about 20 inches of water, and that water needs to be supplemented. To stimulate a 1-inch rain on 1 acre requires 102,642 Litres of water, and according to Ryan, 1” of water requires 11.55 Litres of diesel (3 gallons) costing $10- 11 taking about 55 hours to apply. On the Holt farm all of their soybean and corn acres are under irrigation. On an average year to yield 75-bushel soybeans, farmers would need to apply 10 inches of water, this would mean that 13,686 Litres per acre of irrigated water!

! In the same scenario for corn 4463 L would need to be applied per bushel to yield 230 bushels per acre. This season has been quite wet, so they have only had to put on 7 inches, totalling 718,501 Litres per acre but 2017 was quite dry and they irrigated 20 inches, or 2,052,840 litres per acre, coming direct out of the Ogallala Aquifer.

10 inches x 102 642 L of water/acre = 1 026 420 L of water per acre

Corn: 1 026 420 L/acre / 230 bu/acre = 4462.7 L of water/bu of corn

Soybeans: 1 026 420 L/acre / 75 bu/acre = 13 685.6 L of water/bu of soybeans 

left; students in front of irrigated corn field, right; field weather station
(left) Taking a gander near the 12 foot corn, half of its water requirements are given to it via irrigation;
(right) University of Nebraska weather station on Midplains Ag Property, which helps them determine when and how much to irrigate.

 

Water Contamination

This is an excellent method to view differing management practices. Today we got a clear comparison of our dry land farming to Nebraska’s irrigated farming. To start some soil characteristics in the North-East Nebraska region, include sandy with 1.2% organic matter. These soil qualities do not allow for good nutrient management practices due to its limited capacity to hold nitrogen. Another prominent difference is application, timing and method. First application of nitrogen is similar. Nitrogen is applied during planting at a rate of 100 pounds/acre. To follow, with the use of the pivot system growers can apply nitrogen through the season when nutrient requirements are peaking, the same fashion in which dry land farmers would side dress. The pivot allows for much later applications when needed most such as pollination. In the end of the growing season they have applied 240-260 pounds of nitrogen per acre. In Canada this considered a high amount, yet it’s necessary when taking into account all the limiting factors Nebraska deals with. This manner of nitrogen application has resulted in some issues. These include groundwater pollution or poisoning. 1/3 wells tested were found to have an excess in nitrates. Some had a stupendous amount reaching up to 50 PPM (parts per million). Humans cannot consume more than 10 ppm according to the American government. A reference for what is happening to visualize the situation could be the algae blooms in Lake Erie a direct result of nutrient runoff from agriculture. The solution to the issue is far from easy, as it takes nitrogen approximately 50 years to reach the Ogallala aquifer. Therefor any conservation efforts will not yield any results until 50 years from now. In the end, agriculture needs to find a method in which to conserve what freshwater we have left.

 Sustainability:   

One of the major learning points of the morning stop had to do with the sustainability of irrigating corn and soybeans in Nebraska. Farmers across Nebraska are very fortunate to be located right on top of the Ogallala aquifer. However, there has been tension about the amount of water that is being pulled out of the aquifer to allow the farmers to irrigate their crops. In some of the southern areas of the aquifer, such as Texas, there has been a steady decline in the water level. Being right over the biggest and deepest part of the aquifer, Nebraska has seen the water level become lower over the past few years, however not as serious as other places. Looking into the future, one of the biggest questions surrounding farming in Nebraska is about the long-term sustainability of irrigating their crops. Some people believe that the total amount of water being pumped out of the aquifer is greater than the amount of water being replenished. These people will be the first ones to point out that in the major drought of 2012, the wells of people in small towns ran dry while farmers were still able to irrigate fields. While this extreme weather event had a huge part in the water usage spiking, farmers are very cautious of the amount of water they use to irrigate their crops. With new technologies such as variable rate and electronic controls, farmers can know to the gallon how much water is being put on the field. This really helps preserve the amount of water that stays in the aquifer. Although, Bill Kranz told us even with these technologies in place, it is slowly becoming accepted that irrigating is not sustainable in the long term. In conclusion, although the Nebraskan farmers are pulling water out of the Ogallala aquifer, they are taking many steps to ensure that they do not over use on their crops. If they continue to do this, pulling water from the aquifer can remain fairly sustainable for many years to come.

Lunch:

For lunch, we traveled to the small town of Bartlett, Nebraska. The group went to the Bibs and Boots Café where we enjoyed a delightful home cooked meal. We were treated to delicious hamburger with many tasty toppings, as well as some baked beans, salads, and a fantastic chocolate brownie for desert.

left; Bibs & Boots Cafe wagon wheel sign, right; plate with hamburger and bean lunch
Bibs and Boots Café in Bartlett, Nebraska with an amazing burger bar

Dryland Cattle Management

Overview of Ranchin’:

In the afternoon the sun came out from behind the clouds and we travelled to the Sand Hills of Nebraska. The highlight view of the trip was the rolling hills of lush grasslands, speckled with horses and cows. Here we met with Jay Wolf who took us on a tour of his Wagonhammer Ranch. His ranch was a 3rd generation cow-calf operation. Sitting on approximately 35000 acres of rolling grasslands. Jay along with the aid of Joe his herd manager. told us all about his history, his management practices, his goals, his struggles and much more. Answering every question, we had, this interaction left us all in awe.

scenic view of dryland cattel on pasture
Dryland cattle grazing on sand hills
 

Grazing Management

Wagonhammer Ranch are grass farmers, not cattle feeders. They use their cattle to maintain grass health and nutrition. The biggest difference between Dryland pasture and regular pasture is the stocking rates. During the summer, each cow calf pair is allotted 12 acres. These 12 acres are divided up to rotationally graze them throughout the season, with each piece of land only being grazed for about 10 days total. The benefits of rotational grazing is that it allows the acres to rest and regrow, this prevents the cattle from selectively grazing to keep consistent pasture quality. During the winter, calves are brought to a separate feedlot and cows are left on pasture and fed hay for 4-8 weeks. The pasture is all natural grassland, with only native plants, the pastures have never been planted and only rely on the natural environment and cycle from cool season grasses to warm season grasses.

Breeding Management

Breeding premium genetics is a main strategy when it comes to being able to manage dryland cattle. Jay and Joe run three herds, a commercial herd and two registered herds.  Joe Epperly is the Seedstock Manager for Wagonhammer Ranch and they perform extensive genetic testing on their registered herd of purebred Angus and purebred Charolais cattle. The commercial herd of cattle are cross breeds, usually 3/8 Charolais and 5/8 Angus, or vice versa. They are always looking to improve their herd by bringing in new genetics every year.

tour group with Bartett sign
Bartlett, Nebraska post burgs

Like most producers, Wagonhammer Ranch breeds their cows to have specific traits that make their cows more desirable to produce. These traits include docility and strong maternal instinct. A unique trait that is specifically bred for dryland cows is moderate milk production. While it seems like high milk production would be desired with cows raising calves, milk production requires a high amount of energy and since these cows are raised on low quality feedstuffs they would have trouble meeting their energy requirements. Therefore, the cows are at optimum production when they can produce enough milk to sustain their calf but don’t produce too much that their energy requirements are too high to be met from the roughages they are on. Another important genetic characteristic that Wagonhammer Ranch breeds into their cattle is good feet and good legs because in this big of an operation they do not want to have to worry about intensive foot care. The goal of the commercial operation is to achieve heterosis.

Ken’s Driving

A funny way to end the learning experience, was a good life lesson. Coach busses are not made to go off-roading, as well as, the guys on this trip aren’t very strong. How we came to figure this out happened when we were leaving the ranch, Ken Macs our bus driver was testing his luck when we got stuck, in a couple sandy ruts. We tried taking all the weight out and pushing, yielding no results. Thankfully our host had a pay loader nearby and pulled us out.

left; bus stuck on pasture roadway, right; students pushing bus
The incident, the attempt and the failure
Herb Mignery Country Cowboy Artist Bronze Garden
bronze statue of cowboy on horse "Silent Leather' by Herb Mignery
The famous “Silent Leather”
bronze statue by Herb Mignery

After our tour of the dry land pasture beef farm, we were fortune enough to tour the Bronze Garden in the heart of Bartlett, Nebraska. The tour was led by Bob, who grew up just down the street from Herb in Bartlett. Bob decided to build this garden to honor his friend that was accepted into the Cowboy Artists of America in 1984. With the generous support of the community and Herb to donate his sculptures, Bob was able build this beautiful garden.  This garden is built around his biggest masterpiece, “Silent Leather”. There are only two of these magnificent pieces in the world. This statue was built to represent when a rancher is riding his horse and is in his own paradise on top of his horse. This rancher is so happy that he does not even hear the sound of his leather squeaking while riding. This masterpiece is worth $350,000 USD, but Herb and his wife were happy to donate it in 2002, which attracts hundreds of visitors to the town each year.