All too well, cotton farmers on the High Plains can relate to the sickening feeling of a hail storm rolling in to demolish their annual crop. Others find comfort in knowing that after a devastating storm, they still have the grain, seed, forage and cattle needed to buffer annual profits. Studies researching options such as these, designed to diversify producers, started as controlled experiments at Texas Tech University and have evolved to include more than 4,500 acres of real world producer demonstrations.
The Texas Coalition for Sustainable Integrated Systems (TeCSIS) is a research project that was started in 1997 with the help of a $222 thousand grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program.
Phil Brown, senior research associate of the forage program at Texas Tech, has been involved with the TeCSIS project team since it was established.
“After 10 years we know that, compared with cotton monoculture, integrating the systems reduced water use by 25 percent and reduced nitrogen fertilizer by 40 percent,” Brown said. “We are here to experiment and find the components that fit, so the producer can determine what works for him based on his own circumstances.”
Brown explained the original project was designed to look at a long-term comparison of a cotton monoculture with an integrated cotton/forage/beef cattle system. The ultimate goal is designed to reduce water use while maintaining or improving profitability.
Paul Whitfield Horn Professor and Thornton Distinguished Chair in Plant and Soil Sciences Vivien Gore Allen has been head of the Forage/Livestock Systems Research program since 1995.
“The objective was not to find a single system that was going to solve the world’s problems,” Allen said. “The importance is that we have shown that there are systems that use less water than others, and that when appropriately diversifying cropping and forage systems, profitability remained acceptable, but the water use went down.”
Researchers built a platform that focuses on crop rotations, forages, cattle and conservation of natural resources. This platform is a dynamic model that allows researchers to study additional factors such as carbon sequestration, soil microbial diversity, entomology and gas exchange. Scientists and producers from all over the world have visited the research site in New Deal, Texas. The USDA has also recognized the TeCSIS project as a national model of successful research.
“We are positioned to deliver information that is vital to survival, relevant not only to the High Plains but to the world in general,” Allen stated. “We have the research and outreach platforms in place, a proven and tested team, and a track record of success.”
In 2004, Senator Robert Duncan wanted to develop a large-scale producer-led project to demonstrate water conservation in agriculture. Because of the success of the research, a $6.2 million grant was funded through the Texas Water Development Board to establish the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation (TAWC). This 8-year program, directed by a board of area producers in Hale and Floyd counties, has grown to 30 different producer sites, on more than 4,500 acres, with diverse production and irrigation systems.
The goal is to work with producers to determine how to use less water and either maintain or improve the viability and profitability of High Plains agriculture. This is done by taking a comprehensive approach to analyze how every producer in the project manages their farm. Each producer keeps record of all inputs, planting dates, varieties and yields. All water and fertilizer use is measured and recorded.
Researchers believe every farming system is unique in its own way and should be managed accordingly. Allen said it is important for producers to understand the principles that drive each system.
“We want many different systems, as different as the producers make them, because we want to see the diversity that’s happening,” Allen described. “We want to see how each of these is behaving because it is from this diversity that we can learn to design systems for improved water conservation and profitability.”
She said a research project of this scale could not ever be afforded at a university level, so combining long-term experimentation from the university site along with the producer demonstration sites creates a research tandem that serves as a dynamic platform for demonstration, education and research.
Rick Kellison, project director of the TAWC, plays an instrumental role in the demonstration program and serves as the voice of the producers. He said all of the research goes back to water and sustainability.
“The thought process is that whether due to regulatory policy, which will happen someday, or a natural decline in the aquifer, all of these guys are going to have to learn how to use less water,” Kellison said.
He foresees that once policy is in place, producers will initially be upset but quickly look for solutions. He believes if there are producers already farming with less water while remaining profitable, others will feel more confident to use the tools developed from the research.
“I tell everybody, and I think I am honest when I say this, I don’t know of a producer that’s not concerned about water conservation and saving as much water as they can, but their first goal is to pay off their operating costs at the end of the year,” Kellison said. “So profitability drives what they are going to grow.”
Kellison said that the development, improvement and implementation of new technologies will aid producers in making decisions. He believes some producers actually use more water than needed, even to the point of adverse affects on yields.
“A story we’re trying to get across to growers, and it’s not easy for them, is maximum yield rarely, if ever, equates to maximum net return per acre,” Kellison said.
According to Kellison, farmers should utilize irrigation scheduling tools in their operations. One tool TAWC will offer to producers is a web-based economic decision aid that provides an estimation of maximum net return per acre under limited water. Justin Weinheimer, post-doctoral research associate in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, helped design the program. Weinheimer said this economic decision aid will allow producers to enter criteria specific to their farm, and the program will provide what crop mix and expected yields would be most profitable under limited or declining water availability.
“We are able to stay profitable using less water by intense management of that field through irrigation scheduling, water budgeting and economic allocation of those resources,” Weinheimer said. “A producer can be profitable, even as water declines through the use of new technology and crop genetics.”
Allen believes the High Plains is an outstanding example of a limited water agroecosystem that represents about a third of the world. She said agroecosystems across the nation need to be identified and tagged as permanent sites for research.
“The security of a nation starts with its food supply,” Allen said. “A nation that can’t feed itself is not secure.”
She feels that because the U.S. has been so successful in food production, we haven’t concentrated on our lack of water. But with growing population demands and depleting agri-ecosystems, she believes water is one of the most important issues facing our nation today.
“I think we are positioned here in the High Plains to be a model for others around the globe,” Allen said. “The things that we find here can be translated to an enormous part of the rest of the world.”