A steady stream of water from the Ogallala helps a plant reach its full growth potential – potential that farmers have maximized in the Texas Panhandle, where corn production per acre is among the highest in the U.S.
To illustrate the difference between what a farmer can grow with irrigation and without it, Louis Baumhardt, an irrigation specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research facility in Bushland, Texas, compares two common cropping patterns.
On a one-acre dryland field that is watered only with rain and gets no supplemental water from the aquifer, a popular rotation is one year of wheat and one year of sorghum followed by a fallow year to let the soil rest. This three-year rotation will produce 6,000 pounds of grain on average per acre, or 2,000 pounds per year, Baumhardt said.
By contrast, if a farmer has enough water from the Ogallala, he might plant three years of corn, producing 12,000 pounds of grain per acre, per year.
With more-efficient sprinkler technology, farmers are getting even better at using the Ogallala to produce bountiful crops. Yields of irrigated corn increased by 50 percent in western Kansas between 1980 and 2010, according to research from Kansas State University. Dryland yields, on the other hand, remained flat.
Fittingly for a Texan, Baumhardt explains the difference between irrigated and dryland farming with a football analogy.
“After one year, your dryland production is at the 16-yard line while your irrigated production is at the other end of the field, near the goal line,” he told Circle of Blue. Across the plains, thanks to all that water, corn is scoring touchdowns – touchdowns that translate into dollars for communities now and warning signals for the future.