Higher Yield, Less Water – Tomorrow’s Reality?


The U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service indicates agriculture consumes approximately 80 percent of the nation’s water. In the Sorghum Belt, sources of that water, like the Ogallala Aquifer, are being depleted at a much faster rate than they are replenished. The Kansas Water Office indicates that if no action is taken within the next 50 years, the Ogallala will be 70 percent depleted, and another 40 percent of the area irrigated by the Ogallala will not support a 400 gallon-per-minute well.

“But, what if there is a way we can raise the same size crops with less water,” said Tom Willis, CEO of Conestoga Energy Partners LLC and National Sorghum Producers board director from Liberal, Kansas.

That objective is behind the newly implemented Water Technology Farms, an effort supported by the Sorghum Checkoff. As part of the Long- Term Vision for the Future of Water Supply in Kansas, Willis is one of three Kansas farmers teaming up with the Kansas Water Office to demonstrate that growers can reduce irrigation without negatively impacting crop yields. The initiative involves a three-year commitment to testing the latest irrigation technologies on a whole-field scale.

According to the Kansas Water Office, Willis’ farm in Finney County was the first and largest developed during the 2016 growing season, also known as a Water Conservation Area. To test irrigation efficiency in sorghum, soybeans and alfalfa, four mobile drip irrigation systems, a precision irrigation system that delivers water and nutrients directly into the soil, and three low-pressure spray nozzles were installed. With two soil moisture probes in each field, Willis said he can monitor water data in real time.

“My motivation behind participating in the project is two-fold,” Willis said. “I have farm ground I would like to pass on to my family 1 in the future, and it is extremely important to me that we are able to originate our grain locally for our two ethanol plants in southwest Kansas.”

Willis recognizes the need to discover a sustainable solution to Western Kansas’ water concerns. New technologies provide farmers with opportunities to enhance their bottom line, but Willis said farmers may not take undue risk during low commodity prices, especially when related to water.

Through this three-year project, Willis said his goal is to ultimately reduce water consumption on his farm by 50-60 percent while maintaining or increasing yield. By doing so, he thinks other farmers will adopt similar practices–which could benefit not only those farmers in Kansas, but also growers across the nation.

“I think we have to start treating water like a crop input,” Willis said. “If everyone reduces their water usage by at least one-third, you have extended the life of the aquifer by 35 percent. What does that do? That buys you time until the next round of technology.” The 2016 growing season was an anomaly in western Kansas with the area receiving upwards of 13 inches of rain during May through August. Normal rainfall for the area is 4-6 inches. While still waiting for harvest results, Willis said he already sees some benefits to the mobile drip irrigation system.

“Through observation we have seen better root formation, used less fertilizer and reduced our repair bills.” In the case of sorghum, Willis said his goal is to raise 200-bushel milo on 10- 12 inches of water. If the results are favorable, he thinks people will realize sorghum is not just a dryland crop and farmers can push limits on yield. “I do not know what the next round of technology to conserve water will be, but it has to start somewhere,” Willis said. “I do not think this project is the whole solution to the problem, but it is a start toward finding one.”

The 2016 growing season was an anomaly in western Kansas with the area receiving upwards of 13 inches of rain during May through August. Normal rainfall for the area is 4-6 inches. While still waiting for harvest results, Willis said he already sees some benefits to the mobile drip irrigation system.

“Through observation we have seen better root formation, used less fertilizer and reduced our repair bills.”

In the case of sorghum, Willis said his goal is to raise 200-bushel milo on 10- 12 inches of water. If the results are favorable, he thinks people will realize sorghum is not just a dryland crop and farmers can push limits on yield.

“I do not know what the next round of technology to conserve water will be, but it has to start somewhere,” Willis said. “I do not think this project is the whole solution to the problem, but it is a start toward finding one.”