Texas High Plains agriculture has used irrigation from the Ogallala aquifer at rates that have exceeded recharge for many years. Over 20% of the cotton and about 25% of U.S. beef cattle are found here. Agricultural practices of the past are changing as water for irrigation declines, energy costs escalate, and farm programs are being challenged. Alternative strategies that are less destructive of natural resources including water, soil, and air but that can maintain a viable level of economic profitability are essential if the Southern High Plains remain viable for agriculture. Our research, made possible by the SARE program, addresses these issues. In phase 1 (1998-2002), grazing stocker steers on perennial old world bluestem pastures and small grains in rotation with cotton required 23% less irrigation water, 40% less nitrogen fertilizer, and resulted in higher net cash returns/acre, than growing cotton in monoculture at production levels achieved and under these experimental conditions. Additional benefits to integrating crop and livestock production have included improved soil microbial and enzymatic activity and soil organic carbon, reduced soil erosion to below levels targeted for sustainable resource management, and diversification of income to reduce economic risk. Results of the first 5 years are published (Agronomy Journal 97:556-567; Soil Science Society of America Journal 68:1875-1884). These systems are continuing and have completed two additional years in which several production strategies were revised to reflect changes in practices on the High Plains. Cotton yields in both systems have increased. With this increase, profitability has shifted in favor of cotton production but irrigated water use continues to be 25 to 50% lower in the integrated system. Additional changes are now being implemented in cattle management. Economic return per unit of irrigation water invested is greater for the integrated system than for the cotton monoculture in every year.
Phase 2, funded in 2002, added an integrated dryland perennial native grass/warm-season annual grass/cotton system and two irrigated perennial warm-season grass systems. These systems required complete establishment of crops, installation of a well, construction of the irrigation system, and fencing for the entire project area. Additional funding was obtained to cover these initial costs. The dryland system was completed and began its first year in 2004. Establishment of the remaining two irrigated forage-livestock systems were completed during 2004 and they were initiated in 2005. These systems will be tested along with the initial Phase I systems over the next several years.
An Advisory Board composed of area leaders representing business, industry, and agriculture oversee this project and provides recommendations. Four graduate students have completed their degrees (2 MS and 2 Ph.D). Two additional Ph.D. students will complete their degrees in 2005. Results of this project are being disseminated through educational programs, field days, technical, peer-reviewed, and popular articles, peer-reviewed papers at professional conferences, radio, television, web-based information, an integrated youth curriculum, and numerous talks to diverse groups.
In 2004, information generated from this project was the basis in obtaining a $6.2 million grant from the Texas Water Development Board to test these concepts in an on-farm Demonstration Project. Twenty-six producer sites in Hale and Floyd Counties have been identified and are being equipped to monitor total water use (irrigation plus precipitation), water use efficiency (including soil water depletion), productivity of crops and livestock, economic profitability and other measures to allow evaluation of a diverse approach to water conservation strategies. These 26 sites represent the range of systems from high, moderate and low-input crop monocultures (primarily cotton), crop rotations, and integrated crop and livestock systems. They include both irrigated and dryland systems. This 8-year project will allow evaluation and testing of a wide array of approaches to conservation of water, soil, and other natural resources while evaluating their ability to maintain profitability and rural economies. This large project has a primary focus on water conservation, economic evaluation and with extension and adoption of information on a broad scale. This project takes our research to the next level of scientific discovery and adoption of practices and would not have been possible without the long-term systems research made possible through the USDA-SARE program.
The overall objective is to develop environmentally sustainable and economically feasible crop/forage/beef cattle systems that will assure the viability of agricultural activities in the Texas High Plains while protecting its natural resources and putting this knowledge into practice.
Specific objectives are:
1. To compare the productivity, profitability, input requirements, and impact on natural resources of three replicated, field-scale forage systems for stocker steers with our existing comparisons of a cotton monoculture and an integrated cotton/forage/livestock system.
2. To disseminate information and provide educational opportunities through graduate student research, workshops, field-days, grazing schools, publications, electronic media, meetings, and student participation.
3. To involve local producers and industry in identifying researchable needs, in developing and testing systems of production, in the development of more effective dissemination of information to end users, and enhanced adoption of new technologies.
4. To link this research with systems research in other ecoregions to increase the base of knowledge and understanding of the principles that apply to agricultural systems.