Feed efficiency in beef cattle and water conservation practices could help in effort to save Ogallala Aquifer
GARDEN CITY, Kan. – A dry climate, sparse population and availability of water and feed grains led to the development of infrastructure to produce the No. 1 agricultural commodity in Kansas—beef cattle. Western Kansas is well known for its cattle feeding facilities that currently generate more than $7.8 billion annually for the Kansas economy, according to Kansas Agricultural Statistics.
The availability of water from the Ogallala Aquifer, lying beneath eight U.S. states from South Dakota to Texas, undoubtedly helped cattle feeders long ago decide where to raise beef. Feedlot operations along the aquifer, from southwest Kansas to the Texas High Plains, comprise what one recent report refers to as the “cattle feeding capital of the world,” with more than 36 percent of U.S. beef annually coming from the region.
Justin Waggoner, beef systems specialist at K-State Research and Extension’s southwest area office in Garden City, said that years ago, the Ogallala Aquifer was perceived as an infinite resource that could support all water uses—urban and agricultural. Today, people are aware this is not the case.
David Steward, a professor of civil engineering at Kansas State University, and a team of researchers recently completed a study that examined the future of the Ogallala Aquifer. The study found that if current usage of the aquifer continues, as much as 69 percent of the aquifer would be depleted by the year 2060. Usage is exceeding the recharge of the aquifer, which has led to its depletion.
The Kansas beef industry could potentially take a hit if water becomes more scarce, which would affect the state’s economy. Waggoner said it is hard to pinpoint what areas are in the most trouble when it comes to water availability. Considering the aquifer in a large general sense, he said, there are some areas that are struggling with water today, while other areas are in better shape.
Although differences in water availability exist, he said, conservation should be promoted across the board.
“The beef industry is a multi-billion dollar industry in terms of gross receipts in Kansas,” Waggoner said. “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.”
A recent report released by the Ogallala Aquifer Program, which is made up of researchers from K-State along with the United State’s Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Service, Texas Tech University and West Texas A&M University, examined the impact of the beef industry in the southern Ogallala region.
The report found that the beef industry provides a great economical impact in the region and return on investment for water. When combining the production and processing sectors, the beef industry contributes to the regional economy $29.8 billion in annual economic output and more than 60,000 jobs.
According to the report, agriculture accounts for 90 percent of the water use in the southern Ogallala region each year. Raising beef cattle requires direct and indirect water use. Drinking water for cattle and water used to run a feedlot facility are considered direct water uses, while forages and grains, such as irrigated corn, used to feed cattle make up indirect usage.
The average direct water use for each animal in the feedlot is about 12.5 gallons per day. When combining direct and indirect water usage, the beef industry uses 28.6 percent of the agricultural water, most of it by feedlots. The remaining 71.4 percent is used for irrigated crop production and other direct livestock use.
The dry climate in western Kansas, while suitable for raising cattle, can make growing forages tough. Irrigation is helpful for growing corn in the area. According to the Kansas Department of Agriculture, of the total planted corn acres in Kansas in 2012, 3.09 million acres were non-irrigated, while 1.61 million acres were irrigated.
Reducing irrigated forage could help save water, but it also might bring higher transportation and production costs, which could translate to higher food costs for consumers.
Waggoner said 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.
It’s a struggle, he said, to keep costs down while trying to save more water: “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.”
Feedlot managers are aware of the Ogallala depletion issue, Waggoner said, adding that 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.
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.
Indirectly, Waggoner said one thing that has helped the water footprint of the beef industry is improving feed efficiency in cattle.
“I think we probably overlook that the beef industry uses feeding technologies that improve feed efficiency,” Waggoner said. “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.”
Modernizing feedlots, feeding technologies and improving genetics to develop cattle that are more feed efficient all help reduce water use.
In addition to feedlots, Waggoner said people should think about water use in general and how the Ogallala depletion could potentially impact everyone. Feedlots use more indirect water than cow-calf producers, who might not feel pressure from a lack of water right away.
“The cow-calf operator might be less concerned initially because most of those operations are going to be based on native grass resources,” Waggoner said. “But, I think eventually we’re all connected in the system. I think there will be some impacts across the board, but the degree to which they’re felt is going to be the difference.”
Consumers must also be aware and realize their connection in the integrated food chain.
“The consuming populace of the human race is really the ultimate end consumer,” Waggoner said. “If you look at what we’re able to do with agriculture in this region in terms of how many people globally we feed, that’s a really big issue. We could talk about water conservation on the crop side and livestock side independently, but in reality, it’s (important to be) more water conscious in every step of the system.”
For more information about Steward’s research on the Ogallala Aquifer depletion, a video interview is available on the K-State Research and Extension YouTube channel.