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Doing More with Less Water

Water is a precious and valuable commodi ty on the High Plains of Texas. As a farmer on the High Plains, I often wonder how many times over my career I will reflect upon the words, “If we had had just one more rain.” A longtime family friend told my wife, Kim, at church one day, “Your husband will pass from this world one day wishing for one more rain.”

In a region that averages 18 inches of rainfall per year, it is hard at times to scratch out a living off the land. My wife and our three sons Tanner, Tyler and Turner have been blessed with many bountiful crops over the years although we have had our share of disappointments as well. Our rainfall generally comes in thunderstorms during the growing season that can bless you with precious moisture or bring hail that can wipe out a summer’s work in 10 minutes. That is the nature of farming in our semi-arid region of God’s Earth.

It often has been said about our little part of the world’s largest cotton patch that this country can promise less and give more than anywhere in the world. We have been in the grips of THE most severe three-to-four year drought recorded in our area of the Texas Panhandle since records started being kept in the late 1800s, surpassing the record of the Dust Bowl era by an astonishing eight inches less rain than that period in history. Here at my home place just north of Littlefield, Texas, we recorded 2.9 inches of rainfall in 2011, 2.4 inches in 2012, and 10.6 inches in 2013. So far this year, we have been blessed with 9.6 inches of rain.

About 60 percent of our region is dryland and 40 percent irrigated. We’ve had a great success story here in irrigated agriculture on the High Plains for close to 70 years. I always have viewed irrigation as the best investment in my operation. My fellow producers and I strive to use our water as efficiently as possible and have invested great amounts of capital in improving our irrigation systems and water use efficiencies.

Our irrigation truly is supplemental to our average rainfall. You must, first and foremost, have conservation practices that allow you to take advantage of every drop of rain we receive on our land. We use our irrigation to bridge across those dry periods. We have come a long way from open ditch flood irrigation, to hand-moved sprinkler pipe, gated irrigation pipe, side roll sprinklers, center pivot irrigation to today’s most efficient systems of underground drip irrigation. We use soil probes and high-tech computer-based soil moisture monitors to track our crop’s water use and needs throughout the season.

We have found that you can use a practice on cotton called deficit irrigation, supplying less water than the plant’s total needs, and it tricks the cotton into thinking it has plenty of water for its needs and holds its fruit longer waiting for that August rain we wish for so much. We are learning that we can concentrate our water application to the fruiting period and still be successful in our yields while using less water. Fertigation of our irrigation water is a frontier that I believe is just taking off and will be a great tool as we micromanage our water and fertility programs. We can and will learn to do all of this better as time moves forward.

Through these irrigation practices and genetics, we are growing two to three times the amount of cotton per acre with half the irrigation water that we did when I began farming 26 crops ago. That is an environmental success story that is worthy of mention. We as farmers can do a better job at telling our success stories. We are the ultimate conservationists, and it is time that we share these stories and let the world know that we intend to help clothe and feed the world for generations to come on the High Plains of Texas, while at the same time nurturing our land to support future generations of family farms in West Texas.

– Brad Heffington, Littlefield, Texas brdhffngtn@aol.com