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If you live in Texas, then you are likely well acquainted with the state’s often harsh climate. The hot, dry conditions combined with unpredictable rainfall and drought often leads to declining surface and groundwater stores across the state. While we all feel the effects of a declining water supply, no one knows more about this ongoing battle than Texas farmers.

When it comes to growing our state’s food, feed, fiber and fuel, perhaps nothing is more important than water, and Texas farmer Braden Gruhlkey knows just how true this is.

“Water is important to everybody, and without water you don’t have life. Humans, we’re made up mostly of water and so are plants. So, it’s crucial in the plant’s lifecycle to have enough water to produce the fruit,” Gruhlkey explained.

Irrigation Grows Texas

But to grow crops, farmers need a reliable water source. Irrigation is an important and necessary tool on many farms across arid regions in Texas to help meet crop water demands. In the latest available data, the 2017 Census of Agriculture indicates 7.5 million acres of farmland in Texas depend on irrigation.

Irrigation enhances productivity and profitability on the farm, which allows farmers to grow a steady food supply to meet our population’s growing demands. These very crops also generate economic activity and support jobs. The USDA Economic Research Service indicates that in 2017, more than 54 percent of the total value of U.S. crop sales could be attributed to farms with some form of irrigation.  Closer to home, in the Texas High Plains, it has been estimated that without irrigated agriculture the region’s economy could only support two-thirds of its current population.

“Irrigation is important in the area we live in,” Gruhlkey explained. “Irrigation is very important for beef production because the corn that we grow and a lot of the crops that we grow around here are going into the cattle feedyards. So, irrigation is pretty much a make or break for the beef industry in the Panhandle because they need the feed.”

Historically, irrigated acres have increased across the nation but the amount of water used has decreased, thanks in part to advancements in technology. Farmers also know the risks of a depleting water supply, which is why Texas farmers are on a mission to utilize irrigation water efficiently.

Making Every Drop Count

Conservation is top-of-mind on the Gruhlkey family farm located above the Ogallala Aquifer in the Texas Panhandle.

“Conserving water is extremely important when you live here. I mean, that’s the number one thing that we’re doing – trying to conserve as much water as we can because it’s a finite resource,” Gruhlkey said.

By utilizing center pivots with low-pressure, drop nozzles, the Gruhlkeys can apply water precisely to their crops. Conservation practices like crop rotation, minimal tillage, and the use of fallow periods all help promote soil health leading to increased water infiltration and retention in their fields.

The Gruhlkeys have become great stewards of irrigation water thanks to these practices and irrigation water management. Brandt Underwood, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service agronomist, said irrigated water management is one of the most common conservation practices used on irrigated farms in Texas. Irrigated water management is a plan that helps farmers know when, how much and at what rate to apply irrigation water.

“In an irrigation water management plan, what we do is monitor rainfall, plant growth, and then the deficit water needed to keep the crop growing and productive,” Underwood explained.

Underwood said there are different ways to measure that deficit, but one of the newest methods are soil moisture probes. These probes have sensors that go into the ground and help measure the amount of water within the root zone. Timely information is sent directly to farmers and helps them make irrigation decisions.

“When that soil water profile goes down, that probe tells us we’re getting low on water. So, at that point we would make an irrigation application, bring that soil profile back up to an acceptable level, and quit irrigation,” Underwood said. “Those probes also show us how rainfall brings up the soil water profile and then allows us to skip an irrigation application as we’re monitoring that soil water profile.”

Conserving for the Next Generation

Being a good steward of irrigation water not only allows farmers to produce food, feed, fiber and fuel long-term, it also allows them to pass their farms on to the next generation.

“I live here, this is where I grew up, and I would like for my children to be able to live here and make a living doing exactly what I’m doing,” Gruhlkey said. “So, it’s important to me to conserve it for the next generation. I mean, everybody wants to live in a good place and do a good job and have something for their children. To me that’s probably the biggest reason for why we do what we do.”

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