As dust storms whip around the region and groundwater levels continue to fall, northern Texas Panhandle farmer Harold Grall’s 95% continuous corn operation defies a seemingly grim outlook for growing corn in this part of the state.
With the region entering what may be the fourth year of drought, many Panhandle producers are moving away from corn simply because there isn’t enough water, though recent rains have eased some of the pain.
Grall has learned he can be profitable with less water, primarily by keeping soil tied down with residue. However, exceptional drought conditions are making it difficult to maintain soil cover across the Panhandle.
Texas’ lenient right-of-capture laws lure communities and developers to buy up land that may have available untapped water resources capable of producing hundreds of gallons of water per minute, per acre.
In this region, the Dumas, Texas, farmer has stuck with continuous corn for some 20 years. He may be the only Panhandle producer to do so. Last year, Grall turned out 190 bushels on one tract of land, pumping just a trickle, 2.8 gallons of water per minute, per acre. The secret to his success, he said, has been a bounty of crop residue on his 5,000-acre farm.
“The bigger problem is we’re running out of water, and what are we going to do to start conserving it so we can continue on with our operations like we’ve seen in the past,” Grall said, as he watches closely to make sure an approaching strip-till planter is on the right row.
Strip-till became a common practice on his farm starting in the early 1990s. “It just didn’t make sense that we were doing all of this recreational tillage and drying our soil out, pre-watering it and trying to fill it back up again,” he said.
Some parts of the Panhandle have seen significant rainfall in the past week. Yet during the past three years of drought, rain and snowfall have been scattered at best.
Producers are facing the increasingly daunting prospect of maintaining residue when there is little rain — and without residue, soil moisture is non-existent. Grall’s area of the Panhandle has averaged 6 or 7 inches of moisture per year since 2011. For May 21-27 this year, however, National Weather Service data shows the region around Grall’s farm saw between 3.18 and 4.7 inches of rain.
Dryland prospects have improved significantly for some farmers in the Plainview area. Floydada farmer Dane Sanders is seeing ponds fill up after 4.5 to 7.4 inches of rain fell on his farm on the southern tip of the Panhandle in the past week.
Areas of the eastern Panhandle where groundwater is closer to the surface and rainfall is historically better than in the west have seen between 0.54 inch and 2.10 inches of rain in the past week, according to the National Weather Service. The region is dominated by dryland acres.
ZERO DRYLAND CROPS EXPECTED
Farmer Danny Krienke, who lives in the northeast Panhandle town of Perryton, said drought is making it difficult to maintain crop residue. “We’ve got a couple of fields, and fields my neighbors have, if we get a little rain we may just plant something for cover and not even think about that we’re going to be growing a crop for income,” he said.
Krienke said his irrigation wells continue to run beyond the usual couple of weeks. “Even where we’ve got really good water, we used to never worry about the water dropping off,” he said. “It’ll drop off a little bit, then it will come back up after it’s rested, but then how much longer can we just depend only on irrigation?”
Krienke, who grows primarily wheat and corn, said he has wells that pump up to 900 gallons per minute.
“There’s more land being irrigated and more searching for water right now,” he said. “The biggest part of it is having to do with the drought, but some of it is just how can I maximize the value of my land. If there’s water under it, that has value. That’s one of the things we’ve learned in the 2012 thing; even through the drought, we can wait later to plant. Residue is just critical. I know a lot of people pre-water, but I’ve learned through this drought that I want to try to have a lot of residue and take advantage of what moisture we can.”
Krienke said he is one of the last producers to plant in his region and fights the urge to return to his clean-till ways of the past. The drought of 2011 changed everything. “I planted through the first of May, and I had burned 6 inches (of irrigation) just to keep it from blowing and to get my chemical into it,” he said.
Leaving residue in the field has been worth 2 to 4 inches of soil moisture depending on the season, Krienke said.
DROUGHT OPENS EYES
Steve Walthour, general manager of the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District that covers much of the northern Panhandle, said the drought has opened eyes.
“What we found here in agriculture here in ’11, a lot of the farmers didn’t really have the (water-pumping) capacity they thought they had,” he said. “We have some pretty heavy declines, but as a result of the drought, I don’t see any places that are dire.
“Our biggest problem during drought in this area is having actual capacity to serve citizens. We’ve seen several cities putting in extra wells. They have plenty of water; it’s a matter of being able to get it out of the ground and be able to serve the area.”
Even as the district allocates 18 inches per well per year, Walthour said more than 75% of farmers in the district pump less.
“There’s a lot of farmers here that want their kids to be farming,” he said. “The biggest issue is any water user being treated fairly. No one likes regulation. No one likes putting meters on their wells.”
The district has been working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to find ways to keep more land in the conservation reserve program, and to create more incentives for farmers to conserve water. In some of the Panhandle counties hit hardest by drought, the number of CRP acres has been declining during one of the driest times in the region’s history.
“In the farm bill itself as far as water conservation, one of the biggest problems is that for years and years NRCS has been giving money for equipment replacement and for equipment in the name of conservation,” Walthour said. “It’s really hard to show there has been a lot of water saved with that program.”
Farmers in his district could benefit from an NRCS program to cost-share strip-till equipment, for example, he said.
GOING AWAY FROM CORN
Billy Bob Brown, a farmer in Panhandle, Texas, in the central Panhandle, said lack of rain has forced him to go away from corn in favor of mostly cotton on his 1,500 acres. Last year, he said he put on 24 inches of irrigation water on corn. That, along with a couple of showers, produced a 200-bushel-per-acre crop.
Cotton requires less water than corn, meaning his pumping costs will be less than with corn. On the flipside, he said cotton leaves less residue.
“I like growing corn, I do. But you gotta pay the bills,” Brown said.
Like many producers, Brown entered the spring planting in dust. On one particular pasture north of his farm, a lake that captures runoff from the city of Panhandle is nearly dry and the pasture completely brown. He has struggled to keep his land from blowing.
“Some people even welcome weeds now, to try to keep it from blowing,” Brown said. “When it gets dry like this, we have a lot of windy days all throughout the summer. We just keep trying different ways to conserve moisture and to stay out of the fields and moving soil unless we’re forced to. Some of it you just have to stand there and look at it, because there’s nothing you can do. Sometimes I guess it really makes you feel helpless.
“Not a damn thing you can do about it.”