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Smart Water Use on Your Farm or Ranch

Introduction

pivot irrigation system
A low-energy, precision watering device irrigates an alfalfa field in Newberry Springs, Calif., part of a SARE grant project teaching farmers how to use soil moisture sensors to conserve water.
Photo by Ron Daines

On a steep farm hillside where his parents had previously grown hay, Tim Gieseke planted black walnut trees. While he expects to harvest valuable timber in two decades or more, Gieseke grows hay between the rows and will harvest walnuts and graze a flock of sheep in the grove. The enterprises, which make great use of a 15-percent slope that otherwise would have to be left in grass or forage, also feature an important,water-saving innovation to capture rainfall.

Gieseke designed his agroforestry system to maximize water availability. Walnut trees need 35 inches of water a year to thrive, but Gieseke’s farm in southern Minnesota averages 30 inches of precipitation annually. To make up the difference, Gieseke, with help from a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) farmer grant, constructed a contour system featuring irrigation holes that trap hillside runoff and convey it to the tree roots. (See profile)

“The hillside obviously sheds water, and quickly in the spring when we have snow melt,” said Gieseke, who farms 50 acres. “We wanted to capture that runoff.”

He planted tree seedlings in rows 20 feet apart, created earthen curbs on the contour and augured 9-inch-wide, 30-inch-deep holes between every other tree. The swiss-cheese infiltration system absorbs water from even torrential downpours with minimal runoff.

“If we get a sudden rain, we probably get all of the moisture into the ground, whereas without it, 90 percent of that would run down the hill,” Gieseke said. In the first three seasons, he has not irrigated the walnut saplings.

All over the country, and especially in the desert Southwest and semi-arid Plains, farmers and ranchers worry about water. Agriculture accounts for about 85 percent of U.S. water consumption, a reality that contributes to declining ground and surface water quantity and quality. Severe long-term droughts and explosive population growth in dry, previously rural areas compound the problem.

In response, farmers, ranchers and agricultural researchers are designing innovative runoff collection systems like Gieseke’s, managing soil to improve infiltration, and selecting drought-tolerant crops and native forages that grow well with less water.

“The hard truth is that we’re drawing down the aquifer,” said Vivien Allen, a Texas Tech University researcher who received two SARE grants to study cotton systems that make better use of water. “When I came here in 1995, the clear message was that everything pivots around water.”

Access to water has been controversial since settlers migrated west. Today, throughout the West, urban and suburban dwellers compete with one other and with farmers and ranchers over Colorado River withdrawals. Even in the Northeast, farmers face water challenges with annual, short-term droughts.

“Most field crop farmers will experience drought in most years,” said Harold van Es, a Cornell crop and soil science professor, who is partnering on a SARE grant examining strategies to improve soil quality, including its ability to hold water. “They are absolutely concerned about water.”

Yet, you can create systems that require less water or make better use of what’s available via aquifers, streams, rivers, ponds or precipitation. This bulletin from the Sustainable Agriculture Network is written for producers and agricultural educators who want to consider new approaches to agricultural water use. It showcases innovative research, much of it funded by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, that identifies a range of promising water conservation options.

The bulletin is organized around the following broad tenets:

Managing soil. Applying practices that build soil quality, resulting in a porous, well-structured soil that allows water to infiltrate and holds it there for use by plants. (Part 1)
Managing plants and livestock. Selecting plants, such as drought-tolerant species and native varieties that maximize water availability in crop rotations or pastures. (Part 2)
Managing water. Treating water like a precious resource, capturing, conserving and recycling it among farming enterprises. (Part 3)

For tips on applying some of these strategies on your farm or ranch, or more in-depth sources of information, consult the "What You Can Do" boxes at the end of each section and Resources.

Soil Management | Plant Management | Water Management

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