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Water-Conservation Project Seeks to Improve Irrigation Efficiency in Nebraska

If you were to mention The Nature Conservancy to a gathering of farmers, you’d probably find a few who envision the nonprofit as an environmental group that would prefer to see cornfields turned into wetlands and wildlife habitat. While that has been the case in a few critical locations, The Nature Conservancy, in partnership with various corporations, has also done the opposite by working with farmers to everyone’s benefit.  

As a case in point, The Nature Conservancy, in collaboration with Nestlé Purina and Cargill, recently launched a three-year water project in central Nebraska to improve the sustainability of America’s beef supply chain. 

From Our January Issue: Guest Editor Sonny Perdue, Secretary of Agriculture

Why this story matters to me: "Farmers are the best conservationists because their livelihood depends on the health of the land. By embracing technology and precision agriculture techniques, American farmers can become more productive while also protecting the land and the environment.” – Sonny Perdue

saving 2.4 billion gallons of water

According to Hannah Birge, water and agriculture program manager at The Nature Conservancy, a large percentage of the water used in U.S. beef production is dedicated to irrigating the row crops that become feed for cattle. By putting first-of-its-kind, cost-effective irrigation technology in the hands of farmers, which will help them make more informed irrigation decisions, the organization hopes to see the amount of water needed for row-crop irrigation greatly reduced, along with the environmental impact of the beef supply chain.

“By using smart technology in row-crop irrigation, this program could help save 2.4 billion gallons of irrigation water over three years, which is equivalent to supplying roughly 7,200 households over that time period,” she explains. “The reduction in pumping also means less energy used and less labor expense for farmers.”

It’s no coincidence Nebraska was selected for the project. Home to an estimated 78,000 center pivot systems, the state has the largest share of irrigated acres in the U.S. It also ranks second in total cattle numbers and number of cattle in feedlots. 

Nebraska also overlies the largest portion of the Ogallala Aquifer, which stores as much water volume as Lake Huron. Yet, the aquifer has been declining over the years – as much as 60% in some states. Even in Nebraska, where it has increased in volume in a few areas, the aquifer continues to decline in other areas.

enrollment goal of 50 farmers

Ground and surface water in Nebraska are highly connected, explains Jacob Fritton, water and agriculture project lead at The Nature Conservancy. As a result, water conservation efforts are also important in maintaining the wetlands and sandbar islands of the Platte River, which provide habitat and clean water for people and wildlife. Hence, the project seeks to enroll 50 farmers in the Central Nebraska Irrigation Project over the next three years to impact 75,000 acres in the Central Platte Natural Resource District (NRD).

“We will provide each participant with a starter package that includes three technologically advanced components,” Fritton relates. “Those include a flowmeter between the pump and the pivot, a weather station, and pivot telemetry, otherwise known as remote control of the pivot.”

Although flowmeters are required by the NRD in some areas, they’re not mandatory where water has traditionally been plentiful. Consequently, Fritton says few farmers in those areas actually know how much water is being applied to a field. 

“The flowmeter will also be equipped with telemetry relays so producers can monitor water usage on their cell phones or smart devices,” he adds. “The flowmeter can even convert water flow to inches of water applied to the field. Consequently, we’ve seen some producers change their management practices due to the flow-meter alone.”

An innovative weather and crop-monitoring device from Arable Labs, Inc. is also included in the package. Mounted on a ¾-inch conduit pole that is tall enough to place the unit at least 3½ feet above the expected crop height, the Arable Mark combines weather and plant measurements. Solar powered and nearly maintenance-free, it collects over 40 field-specific measurements, including rainfall, dew, evapotranspiration, temperature, humidity, growing degree days, solar radiation, and plant health via a seven-band spectrometer. That information is sent to the cloud for retrieval anytime, anywhere. 

“The Arable is even unique in the way it measures rainfall,” Fritton says. “Instead of using the traditional tip bucket that fills and dumps – and can get plugged with dirt and debris – it measures rainfall by the sound and frequency of raindrops hitting the dome of the unit and is accurate to within 0.2 millimeters per hour.”

By itself, the Arable Mark lists for around $500, which is considered costly for a weather station. However, the device also monitors the crop for stress, pests, and disease indicators as well as growth and maturity.

The final piece of the kit is remote control of the pivot. In some cases, that has meant adding an AgSense Field Commander remote irrigation management system, since it works on all brands and vintage of pivots and control panels. However, participants can also use a telemetry system offered by their pivot manufacturer. Regardless of brand, GPS technology provides real-time information about the pivot’s position and provides precise control of speed, direction, and more. At the same time, all control options, as well as customizable text messages and email alerts, are accessible on any smart device. 

“The program is intended to be a participant’s first venture into irrigation technology,” Fritton says. “All total, the technology we’re providing represents an investment of between $8,000 and $10,000, depending on what you need. After the three-year project is complete, producers are allowed to keep the entire package; but they will then have to pay the connectivity services themselves.” 

Field to Market’s FieldPrint Platform tracks the project’s progress.


Pictured with son Zach (left), Roric Paulman (right), a Nebraska farmer and chair for the Nebraska Water Balance Alliance, served as a farmer adviser for a pilot project in western Nebraska.

to ensure a future that is sustainable

The Central Nebraska Irrigation Project was initiated through the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, a group of leading companies and conservation organizations focused on advancing farmer-led programs in water conservation, water quality, and soil health in key agricultural states.

Diane Herndon, senior sustainability manager, Nestlé Purina, says, “Nestlé Purina believes in adding value to agricultural lands that represent our supply chain. Beef is a vital ingredient in many of our Purina pet foods. Yet, over 50% of the environmental impact of producing beef involves growing the corn used as feed. The whole idea of this project is to help farmers improve water-use efficiency in irrigated row crops used as cattle feed.

“It has to be good for the environment, but it also has to be good for the farmer,” she continues. “Our company is over 100 years old. We’d like to be around for the next 100 years, so we want to make sure we’re resourcing our raw material responsibly and helping to keep agriculture healthy through the next several generations.”

“Nebraska farmers and the Ogallala Aquifer are both vital to our success in terms of raw materials and processing,” adds Courtney Hall, Cargill technical sustainability manager. “By working with farmers, alongside The Nature Conservancy and Nestlé Purina, we’re scaling these solutions around water conservation to ensure an even more sustainable future for beef.”

other farmer-led initiatives

This isn’t the first initiative of its kind. In cooperation with Coca-Cola, The Nature Conservancy also managed a three-year project in western Nebraska that began in 2014. That project, which involved 11 producers and enrolled about 8,000 acres, was cost-shared 50-50 with producers who received soil moisture probes, field mapping to determine water-holding dynamics, pivot telemetry, and variable-rate irrigation prescriptions.

After those three years, producers saw a 4-inch-per-acre reduction in water use compared with neighboring farms. Moreover, all have continued to use the tools, despite connectivity fees.

“They’ve all kept the technology in place and given us reasons why they’ve benefited from it – whether it’s been in the form of higher yields, less expense, or more peace of mind,” Fritton says. “We’re hoping to see similar results in central Nebraska.” 

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