But by switching crops and protecting the soil, the new math might work out just fine for individual farmers, say several Kansas State University researchers.
When a farmer irrigates, the first few inches of water are more important to the crop than the last few. Often the final inches of water are “insurance” – better to err on the side of too much than too little.
Farmers with pumping restrictions will lose this buffer. Cutting off those last inches might reduce yields a bit, but not hamper a farm’s profitability as long as farmers are careful with their watering.
The interesting question, says Nathan Hendricks, a Kansas State agricultural economist, is how the sum of these individual decisions will affect the local and regional economy, both short term and long term.
“We’re not quite sure,” Hendricks told Circle of Blue, adding that irrigation provides a substantial economic return. An irrigated crop will produce from two to six times the amount of grain as a dryland rotation.
Irrigation causes not only yields to balloon, it also creates demand for farm inputs, for seed, fertilizer, and equipment. This is called the multiplier effect, how one sector of the economy creates jobs and growth in other areas.
A wobble in the multiplier effect worries Ed Heim, a sales manager at Hoxie Implement Company. The equipment dealership is located on the corner of US Route 24 and Main Street in Hoxie, the seat of Sheridan County and home to 1,200 people. Outside the store, bright red Case tractors and combines – $US 400,000 machines –sit in neat rows.
If farmers are not harvesting as much, they might have less wear and tear on their equipment, meaning fewer purchases at the shop. Still, Heim, whose father bought the dealership in 1962, says that a reduction in pumping is the future for the plains. “Most people around here think that sooner or later everyone will be doing this,” he said.
One business option is to use water where its economic value is the highest. Several researchers in Texas argue that the region should do so by expanding its feedlot operations, already home to 4.9 million cattle and 3.4 million hogs.
Direct water use for livestock represents no more than 3 percent of the region’s water use, according to Steve Amosson, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension economist.
“Increased economic activity from beef operations will help offset eventual losses resulting from irrigated crop production shifting to dryland due to aquifer depletion,” Amosson wrote in a report published in September.
The region is already grain deficient, importing two bushels of grain to feed livestock for every bushel it produces.