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Producers adapting to dry agricultural conditions

Published 4/2/2012 in Progress


A steady drizzle of rain wet the streets and sidewalks early in the morning on a Wednesday in late March in Garden City.

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Laurie Sisk/Telegram A grain cart follows along side a combine as workers harvest a field near TV Road and Road 14 south of Garden City in October 2011.

Laurie Sisk/Telegram A grain cart follows along side a combine as workers harvest a field near TV Road and Road 14 south of Garden City in October 2011.

John McClelland, Garden City Co-op CEO, looked out the window of his office, hoping it would continue.

Usually a wetter than average year follows a dry year, he said.

And area producers could sure use the moisture.

Local meteorologists said the "bullseye" for the storm that day was on Garden City, and the rain set a record for March 22, with 1.59 inches. The previous record was 1.28 inches in 1979.

As of that rainfall, Garden City was a half-inch from normal rainfall this year.

In 2010 it was drier in Finney County than it was during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

McClelland says it's thanks to farmers the area didn't experience Dust Bowl-like conditions, with blowing dirt and sand.

"It's as dry as it's historically ever been. Even with the drought and the winds, we haven't experienced Dust Bowl conditions. For the most part, it hasn't been too bad. And the reason for that is farming practices," he said.

Technology has enabled producers to leave soil more undisturbed with minimum tilling.

"Farmers are doing lots of things that leaves enough plant residue on top that the winds don't start moving dirt," he said.

They've also taken up practices that use less water, which lessens the demand on the Ogallala Aquifer, the main water supply in the region. The aquifer has been the discussion of regional producers over the past year who had come up with a plan to conserve the aquifer.

In early March, Gov. Sam Brownback signed House Bill 2451, which eliminates the state's "use it or lose it" water policy and gives landowners incentive to conserve water because they won't feel that they must use their maximum amount of water when they don't need to just so they don't lose water rights, he said.

Senate Bill 272 amends multi-year flex accounts to expand irrigators' capabilities and options so they can manage their crop water without increasing long-term water use under their water right, he said.

Discussions to come up with a plan to conserve water began last year in Colby at a summit on the Ogallala Aquifer.

Much of the High Plains region relies on the Ogallala for water, but the resource is being depleted due to widespread irrigation use in the High Plains states.

The Ogallala Aquifer, also known as the High Plains Aquifer, is a vast but shallow underground water table located beneath the Great Plains. It is one of the world's largest aquifers and covers an area that includes portions of eight states: Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

Brownback said that in addition to these bills, he anticipates the passage of another bill that would promote local control.

The proposal includes supporting legislation to provide a process for proactive conservation plans, called Local Enhancement Management Area Plans (LEMAs). LEMAs call for mandatory reductions if supported by the Groundwater Management District, have corrective measures that address conservation needs, and are approved by the chief engineer.

McClelland said many local producers are happy with the bills.

"The bills will be effective in conserving the water of the Ogallala," he said.

McClelland said despite the drought, the agriculture industry is thriving in western Kansas. And that's after southwest Kansas producers at Garden City Co-op missed out on roughly $85 million in crops.

The safety net of farm insurance helped out those farmers and the economy, McClelland said.

"Last year we took about 40 percent of the wheat, 30 percent of the milo and 60 percent of the corn we should have. That translates into millions of bushels, and at these prices, that's many millions of dollars," he said.

He also said other businesses miss out on money during poor agriculture years.

Truck drivers didn't have as much grain to haul, trains didn't take out as much grain and custom harvesters were fewer in 2011, he said.

McClelland said farmers are still spending money with the co-op.

"They're still trying to grow a crop," he said.

McClelland said it's still a good time in agriculture.

"We take comfort in the fact that weather in western Kansas is cyclical. You have to plan for the wrong run," he said.

He said co-op officials are optimistic about the future and opportunities in agriculture.

McClelland said the weather will decide a lot of what happens this spring, summer and fall for crops. He expects moisture because the general trend is to not have two dry years in a row.

"In order to live in western Kansas, you have to believe that and be optimistic," he said.

McClelland is confident the rain will come.

"It's raining today," he said.

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