Even on the open, semi-arid landscape of western Kansas, technology is spiraling down on the farm.
Those first irrigators who poked holes into the Ogallala would have never thought there would be a way to turn off their irrigation systems in bed at 3 in the morning. Nor could they ever have imagined they could know how much moisture there really was below their boots on any given day.
They also thought the Ogallala Aquifer — that cache that transformed the western Kansas economy from a Great American Desert to an oasis — was infinite.
Boy, were they wrong.
The economy of western Kansas depends on the Ogallala Aquifer. And time is running out for the ancient cache. For years, irrigators and others have been sipping the region’s groundwater reservoir faster than it can recharge.
But across western Kansas, the Kansas Water Office has teamed up with more than a dozen farmers to help extend the life of the world’s largest freshwater aquifer. Through a new kind of farm, the state is partnering with progressive farmers in a demonstration project that shows irrigators how they can do more with less.
Irrigators can get a closer look at these technical advances at some of the state’s 15 Water Technology Farms, said Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office.
These demonstration farms allow the installation and testing of the latest irrigation technologies on a whole field scale in an aggressive effort to curb water depletion, Streeter said.
The first three technology farms were implemented in time for the 2016 season. The new concept - the first of its kind in the nation - is drawing watchful eyes from extension professionals and researchers in other parts of the High Plains Aquifer, said Jonathan Aguilar, water resource engineer with K-State Research and Extension
“These are very unique and our colleagues in Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska — they are looking at us,” he said. “They have heard about it, and they are very curious about replicating it.”
Part of Aguilar’s job is to test the latest irrigation technologies. Among the sites he is studying is the Garden City Co.’s technology farm, which is managed and farmed by Dwane Roth.
The study includes analyzing a system’s water efficiency, as well as yield comparisons and the cost benefit of each system.
Each farm is set up slightly different, depending on the primary concern the producer has, Aguilar said. Roth’s farm includes a variety of irrigation nozzles. In all fields, soil moisture sensors are installed and tested.
Another aspect being tested is the role of drought-tolerance of the seed itself, as well as weed suppression, Aguilar said.
For Roth, who has committed to cutting back 15 percent of his irrigation use on his Finney County farm, soil moisture sensors have helped change his mindset of when to irrigate and when he doesn’t need to pump a drop from the dwindling aquifer underneath. On triple-digit days when the sensors show a good moisture profile, he doesn’t turn on.
He is trusting what the researchers are telling him, including Aguilar.
“We are actually losing yield by overwatering,” Roth said. “We are not just overwatering, we are pushing our nutrients down below the root zone before the plant can actually use it.”
Aguilar noted using moisture sensors or irrigation scheduling not only helps with preserving the life of the aquifer but also decreases the loss of expensive fertilizers to runoff or leaching. Moreover, studies show farmers getting the same yields with less water when managed correctly.
“Knowing what you are managing is really the key here,” he said, adding, “It gives you more confidence to shut off your systems.”
Moreover, he said, farmers don’t have to go to the field to know if it is wet or dry outside. They can look at their phones or web devices to see what is happening on a particular field and make decisions.
“Many producers are excited about the water sensors,” he said. “Many of us are visual in terms of learning and they are able to visually see where they are in terms of the status of the water in the soil profile. They are more confident in either turning on or turning off the system.”
In 2016, due to 25 inches of rain last year, Roth only applied 11 inches of water and raised a 228-bushel corn crop at the technology farm, said Aguilar.
On a normal year, irrigators might use around 18 inches of water, he said.
“It still rains in western Kansas, and anytime we can capitalize on that rain we are actually helping the aquifer,” he said.
But otherwise, he said, if the soil profile is full and irrigators are still watering, “we prevent rain from entering the soil and actually just get runoff. It is still advantageous to look at the forecast and anticipate rain.”
Aguilar is seeing success at other technology farms, as well. At farmer and business owner Tom Willis’ farm in southern Finney County, Willis only had to use 76 percent of his water allocation in 2016.
Willis has reduced water usage by 33 percent on his farm and hopes to get to 50 percent in coming years.
“K-State is involved in five of the water technology farms, and it is safe to say, they have seen positive results with all the technologies they are using,” he said.
There are also a few challenges, he said. One is the additional expenses that can occur, such as changing planting patterns and some systems are expensive to purchase. There is also additional time and expense in caring for certain systems, including those with hoses on the ground, once the season is over.
The sensors, which some producers have said will pay for themselves in a year or so, aren’t as widely used yet, either, he said. Only about 10 percent of Kansas irrigators have implemented moisture sensor technology.
Streeter said water tech farms are helping producers gain confidence in technology and what it can do by showing producers how it can work on a whole-farm scale.
“Before the technology farms, we heard a lot of anecdotal — ‘the technology all sounds good, but until I see it work on a farm in my area, it is hard to spend money on it and, two, to trust it,’” Streeter said.