Did you know that the Texas agriculture industry provides more than just the food on your plate? The Texas agriculture industry is among the primary drivers of the economy, generating billions in economic activity and hundreds of thousands of jobs. In fact, the 2017 Census of Agriculture indicated that Texas agriculture contributed nearly $25 billion to the economy in products sold.
The water used for farming grows crops that support this thriving economy. Farmers recognize the value of water and strive daily to conserve this precious resource so it can contribute to the financial wellbeing of Texans for generations to come.
“When you think about sustainability, there’s an economic component to that,” Donna McCallister, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Texas Tech University, said. “And to be economically sustainable, you have to be profitable. And so, producers have to be efficient in their operations in order to make that profit.”
Due to the complex relationship between conservation and economics, farmers are evolving their processes and making long-term investments in their land. Take a look at these four ways conservation in Texas makes economic sense.
1. Crop Rotation
“It takes a lot of resources to do what we do,” Texas Farmer Braden Gruhlkey said, “and so, we’ve got to figure out ways to do it on less. Especially in the areas like where we farm, where the water tables are dropping.”
Braden Gruhlkey and his family farm corn, wheat, cotton and seed sorghum in the Texas Panhandle where they implement a variety of conservation practices that help them do more with less. He said one of the biggest practices that has helped their farm is crop rotation.
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Texas, by utilizing crop rotation, specific crops are planted in a planned, recurring sequence in different growing seasons on the same land. The diversity in timing and plant varieties benefits soil health by improving soil structure, while also helping control weed pressure – all leading to a boost in crop yields.
“You would’ve put the same money in, whether you rotated it or not, so if you’re getting a higher yield, you’re growing it cheaper, it’s benefiting you economically,” Gruhlkey said.
Using summer fallow periods can also be part of a successful crop rotation. Gruhlkey said they incorporate fallow periods into their farming operation primarily on land with less water availability. They rotate these acres in thirds on areas with low-water situations. Typically, one-third of their acreage in a winter crop, like wheat, another third with a summer crop, like cotton, corn or sorghum, and then nothing is planted on the remaining one-third of their farm, or it is left fallow.
The Gruhlkeys have worked years to build organic matter in their soil and improve soil health on their farms. With their concern of soil health and through stewardship efforts, the Gruhlkeys are confident in their summer fallow approach on heavy clay loam soils.
In doing so, they believe it gives the land a full year to store moisture and build nutrients, improving the health and productivity of the soil, and ultimately boosts crop yields. Gruhlkey said there are limited threats of erosion from wind and water due to the tight clay soils and continuous rotations of high residue crops every other year.
While Gruhlkey now fully realizes the advantages to his crop yields from on-going conservation efforts, and the benefits to his bottom line, he said it hasn’t always been that way. There was a time when he could not see implementing fallow periods because he had bills to pay, needed a crop planted on every acre and didn’t have the confidence he does now in the health of their land.
“Until we started doing it long enough where now my yields are so far above what growing a crop on every acre every year was doing. When you kind of sit down and do the math, I think we’re making more money doing this than we were by just planting the entire farm every year,” Gruhlkey said.
2. Conservation tillage
Joe Outlaw is the co-director of the Agricultural and Food Policy Center at Texas A&M University. Outlaw said when producers use conservation practices that in some way conserve or strengthen the soil, water or air, they’re not only protecting the environment, but they’re also making good business decisions.
Conservation tillage is one practice Outlaw said farmers are using that yields a host of benefits. Through conservation tillage, farmers implement minimal or no-till practices that leave crop stalks, or stubble, in the ground after harvesting a crop.
“Conservation tillage signifies, I’m going to work the land less with equipment. And to do that, I gained the benefit of leaving more moisture in the soil. I gained the benefit of having more organic matter on the ground so that if we get wind or water, I’ve left full erosion. I have used less diesel, less power,” Outlaw said.
3. Cover Crops
“Texas in and of itself is very diverse,” Donna McCallister said. “And each region, of course, has its own set of natural resource endowments, challenges and concerns.”
In the Texas High Plains, McCallister said water is one of their greatest endowments thanks to the Ogallala Aquifer. However, the aquifer also represents the greatest challenge, as it is a non-renewable resource and is depleting quickly.
One way farmers are thinking out-of-the box to do more with less on their land, is by using cover crops, she said. Cover crops are crops that farmers plant but do not harvest. While this practice may seem counter intuitive, cover crops provide a host of soil benefits. Not only do cover crops hold soil structure in place from wind and water erosion, they also build up moisture and nutrients for future crop use.
“Profit margins in agriculture are very tight, and everything that is done at the field level has a cost,” McCallister said. “There are certain things that producers are starting to do now in their operations that maybe they haven’t done in the past because of that necessity and in water availability.”
4. Advanced Irrigation Systems
DeDe Jones is a risk management specialist for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in Amarillo, Texas. Jones said 20-25 years ago, many farmers in the area used furrow irrigation to pipe out water to their different crop rows.
“The problem with that is there tended to be a lot of evaporation and uneven distribution. Farmers would start pumping water down the rows, and as it got farther and farther to the end, more and more of that water evaporated. So, the crops on the row closest to the pipe would get more water than those in the middle of the field,” Jones said.
Today, she said farmers are adopting more advanced irrigation practices, such as low energy precision application (LEPA) center pivot irrigation and drip irrigation systems. These systems allow farmers to apply water to their crops more efficiently and uniformly – using less water and achieving better yields.
“With these newer systems, water is utilized more efficiently and less labor is required. Unlike furrow irrigation systems where pipes had to be moved to different sets of rows, center pivot and drip systems are more automated,” Jones said. “As a result, producers save both time and money.”
While it is challenging to determine the exact dollar value of conservation practices, the conservation efforts of farmers are making a big difference, both economically and environmentally.
“All of [these practices] are designed to make the farmer financially, at least as well off, while protecting the land, if not better off. And because of that, it keeps them in production. And when you keep the land in production, you keep the supplies up and the prices lower than they would be otherwise,” Joe Outlaw said.
When farmers are productive and profitable, they spend money on land, equipment, seeds and labor to grow their crops – much of which flows through the local economies of communities throughout Texas.
A vibrant agriculture industry also protects the quality of the air we breathe, water we drink as well as the health of our soil.
Water grows our economy in a multitude of ways. That’s why Texas farmers are growing more crops with less water so we can save this precious resource for the future without compromising economic growth today.