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Pumping with future in mind

Shooting for achievable crop yields rather than bin busters lets the Grotegut family stretch declining groundwater in their family farming operation in Dawn in Deaf Smith County, Texas.

Chris and Judith Grotegut and Chris’ parents, Joe and Gertrud, farm 14½ sections. They irrigate the best land with center-pivot sprinklers and are seeding tough-to-irrigate fields back to native grasses.

Chris believes groundwater can be preserved for the future while growing sustainable crop yields.

“I don’t like to hear talk of ‘planned depletion.’ I think we can do better than that,” he explains. “We have to keep learning and adapting. We can put on 10 inches under a circle in a season and grow reasonable crops.”

“Realistically, 166 bushels of corn per acre is our county average yield, and a lot of water gets wasted trying to make 250 bushels,”
Chris says. “It’s a lot easier to budget 150-bushel corn and make the grade than to shoot so high. We’ve got to manage our goals and live with them as we go more toward dryland agriculture in the High Plains.”

Key Points

• Diversified crops and rotation work into water-saving scheme.

• Grotegut family advocates a “sustainable withdrawal” of water for crops.

• Irrigation is used as a supplement, not a prime water source.

Cutting plant population

Crucial to successful crops using less water, particularly corn, is reducing the plant population.

“We’re going with under 20,000 plants per acre in 30-inch rows for corn. Our sprinklers are set up on a 60-inch pattern with LEPA or LISA heads, and we like drag hoses, too. We’ve gone back to furrow diking, and we’re considering diking before going to no-till on a strip-tillage program — getting the dikes in before establishing a defined traffic pattern,” says Chris.

In their rotation, the Groteguts use corn, grain sorghum and wheat, as well as cotton when the market looks promising. “Corn can remain sustainable for us because it’s alive more days in the spring/early-summer wet season than any other crop,” Chris says. “To grow it successfully on reduced irrigation, we need to build up a full soil profile of moisture, so we follow a fallow program.

“If we’re in a summer crop of corn or sorghum, that land lies fallow until the next fall once the crop comes off. Then we plant wheat in October,” Chris explains. “When wheat comes off in June, that ground is fallow until the following April.”

Rotation done in thirds

“Our rotation is usually in thirds, and we’ll often make the decision on whether to plant corn or sorghum based on probing the soil before planting time. We stick with a limit on the number of acres of corn we plant and lower yield expectations to get by on less irrigation,” he says.

Chris maintains that as farmers learn to cut back more and adapt to improvements in crop varieties and techniques, they’ll get by on less irrigation water.

“We can build a model on water use of 2 inches per land acre — not crop acres — we don’t want to penalize the agricultural producers using less water. If we have 2 inches of water per acre on a section of land, that gives us 1,280 acre-inches of water.

“If we plant limited-irrigated corn or grain sorghum on 122 acres, that gives us 10 inches of water per acre on that field to supplement rainfall. In that scenario, wheat would be grown as rain-fed only, and the other field is fallow. Plant the balance of the farm to grass or farm it dryland. That would put us closer to planned sustainability than planned depletion,” Chris explains.

“We need to diversify good crop farming and have something else to fall back on,” he adds.

The Groteguts find running cows and calves on crop stubble as a good fallback.

“We’re focusing on females instead of feeders. Stockers can be hit or miss, but there seems to be less financial risk with breeding animals. Cow-calf seems to maintain a sustainable lifestyle; cows can utilize corn or sorghum fodder better than stockers,” Chris explains.

Steiert writes from Hereford, Texas.

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SUSTAINABLE PUMPING: Chris Grotegut, Dawn, Texas, is managing his operation’s water use by extracting only the amount of water he needs to produce crops and still keep the aquifer at its current level.

This article published in the February, 2010 edition of IRRIGATION EXTRA.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.