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Easing cattle's Ogallala squeeze

Jeff Caldwell 09/25/2013 @ 3:28pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

The dangers of a dwindling Ogallala Aquifer don't end in the crops sector. Much of the nation's beef cattle industry lies atop the underground water supply, and without taking steps to preserve the aquifer, that industry could be at risk down the road.

Luckily, the industry's bringing along innovations that could go a long way to extending the aquifer's supply and sustaining a business that generates almost $8 billion a year in the state of Kansas alone.

The answers primarily lie in feed efficiency and basic water conservation practices, according to a report by Kansas State University specialists tasked with compiling ways to sustain the vital water source. The good news is, at least in his state, Kansas State University Research and Extension beef systems specialist Justin Waggoner says the cattle business is the type of priority that will land high on many lists when it comes to continued sustained water priorities.

"The beef industry is a multi-billion dollar industry in terms of gross receipts in Kansas," he says in a university report. "So if we do fast-forward into the future, and water is going to be allocated on what has the greatest value or economic return, the economic impact of the beef industry will certainly be a part of that discussion in western Kansas."

Waggoner estimates that ultimately, though that $8 billion price tag is for cattle marketing alone, the true economic value to his state is more along the lines of $30 billion and around 60,000 jobs. So, keeping the business alive is a big deal in the High Plains. Doing that requires first a renewed emphasis on water management systems and overall conservation. That's most exemplified in larger feeding operations, where better water management can most easily and directly extend tightening aquifer water supplies.

"Feedlot managers are aware of the Ogallala depletion issue; several feedlots are working to conserve water. For starters, most of feedlots’ runoff water goes into a lagoon system that will later be re-applied to cropland via irrigation," according to a K-State Research and Extension report. "Recycling water if there are overflow tanks, particularly in the wintertime when tanks are continuously flowing to keep from freezing, is another method of water conservation in the feedlot sector. Capturing the overflow water and putting it back into the system, or utilizing it for another purpose, is important to help save direct water."

Then there's what you feed your cattle. Though it's technically an indirect variable relating to water conservation, there are different ways to approach what's fed to cattle that can make a difference. Waggoner recommends looking away from the feedstock of irrigated corn and more toward traditional hay and silage supplies.

"Many feedlots in western Kansas already bring in grain from other states in the U.S. Grain Belt. Having grain shipped in from other places minimizes the use of locally-grown irrigated corn, but forages such as hay and silage are traditionally grown locally," Waggoner says, adding that the cost to import from other parts of the country can be a costly venture, too. "The more resources we can grow locally, in general, the easier it is going to be and the cheaper it is going to be. If we have to draw from an even larger region, start to import more grain, there will be a cost that will be passed on to the consumer at some point."

Genetic also plays a role in trimming water use efficiency. Maximizing feed and water efficiency can play a major role in turning back the Ogallala clock.

"I think we probably overlook that the beef industry uses feeding technologies that improve feed efficiency," Waggoner says. "So pounds of feed used per pound of gain...if I can reduce the amount of feed used to produce a pound of beef, that reduces the amount of water used."

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