As the international population grows and resources shrink, it has become more evident that the world needs Nebraska and its agricultural products.
Most Nebraskans don't know their state is at the center of an international mission to produce more food for a growing world population, amid dwindling natural resources.
Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are conducting important studies, while Nebraska farmers and ranchers are applying agricultural practices with the goal of producing more food with less environmental impact.
In Nebraska, it all boils down to livestock, corn and water.
Livestock is Nebraska's largest ag-related commodity. The state ranked first nationally in commercial red meat production in 2011, according to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.
Changing the way livestock is cared for can conserve natural resources and improve overall meat quality.
Anne Burkholder, a rancher in Cozad, Neb., knows this well. At Will Feed, she helps oversee just fewer than 3,000 cattle, which she raises holistically.
“A comfortable calf will make healthy beef and use natural resources in a more efficient way,” she said. Burkholder works with calves from the moment they enter her feed pen after being moved from their birthplaces. She uses low-stress handling methods, slowly teaching the calves how to trust their caregivers and navigate the feed pens. Many of the cattle previously grazed on open land.
“To take good care of a calf, we have to look at the whole calf and not just view him as a digestive system or future food,” Burkholder said. “We have to understand he has emotional, psychological and physical needs.”
She said the acclimation process for a new calf lasts four to seven days. The less stress the calf experiences during that time, the better its overall health.
Burkholder said she is an animal welfarist at heart. Though she believes it is important to have the right to raise animals for food, that right also comes with responsibilities.
She said she believes treating livestock with utmost care will benefit the economy and the environment.
“In a healthy calf it may take five pounds of feed to create one pound of beef,” she said. “But say we needed seven pounds of feed to create one pound of beef. That wouldn't be nearly as efficient.”
The less feed needed to nourish calves, the better. If livestock owners are using less feed, they also are preserving the natural resources needed to produce that feed.
A 2-pound difference might not seem like much, but in 2010-2011, 16 percent of the corn produced in Nebraska went into producing livestock feed. About 40 percent of corn produced in the United States is used to feed livestock. Producing the same amount of beef using less feed will save corn, which can be used for human food consumption or in the ethanol fuel industry.
Burkholder, a Dartmouth University graduate in psychology, meticulously monitors the amount of feed she uses each day in her feed pen to see where improvements can be made.
Producing more food using fewer natural resources is a priority in Nebraska and for many agricultural scientists. For generations, Nebraska farmers' main concern was feeding people in the U.S. But with a rapidly growing world population, the roles of Nebraska farmers and ranchers have expanded into feeding the world.
According to the Water for Food program at UNL, by 2050 a 40 percent world population increase will double the demand for food. Water for Food is dedicated to improving water management and how it relates to food production to create present and future global food security.
UNL agricultural researcher Patricio Grassini said what makes Nebraska special in agricultural production is the environment's natural ability to provide stability in the food production market. This stability is largely possible because of the Ogallala Aquifer and Nebraska's ideal geographic location.
“A 40 percent population increase means feeding a lot more people,” Grassini said. To preserve places like the Amazon and the Savannahs, it will be necessary to produce more food in existing crop fields. To find ways to do that, Grassini and Kenneth Cassman, also of UNL, have conducted research to help farmers attain maximum crop yields while maintaining a relatively low environmental impact.
Through their research, Grassini and Cassman found that using modern irrigation systems on corn crops has less of a negative environmental impact, per unit of grain produced, than rain-fed systems.
This is good news, because Nebraska is the most irrigated state in the country, and ranks third in corn production.
However, Grassini said Nebraska is currently at 90 percent of its crop-yielding potential. As a result, ag-producers need to focus on how to decrease the environmental impact of their crop production.
For farmers, whose livelihood depends on high-yielding crops each year, such environmental efficiency experiments may have little to no short-term benefit.
“There needs to be incentives in place for farmers to try out more effective methods for reducing water use,” Grassini said. “Right now, it's understandable that the farmers don't want to take the risk and will always put a little more water on their crops, just in case.”
Grassini said policymakers and farmers will need to work together to satisfy short-term needs while preparing for long-term solutions.
He emphasized the importance of the Ogallala Aquifer to Nebraska's agricultural and irrigation success.
“Without it, Nebraska would be like any other state, like Colorado or New Mexico,” he said. The aquifer allows large-scale irrigation, which is a huge safety net for Nebraska crop production.
Nebraska currently has 92,685 registered, active irrigation wells.
Globally, fresh water has become increasingly limited, with the majority of that water being used for agriculture. Though on the surface it may seem like Nebraska is sitting atop liquid gold, the reality is that not all of the state is so bountiful.
For years, geoscientist Steven Sibray has worked in hydrogeology in the Nebraska Panhandle.
He said some parts of Nebraska have stable groundwater levels, while others — such as Box Butte County — are losing up to a foot or more of water from their aquifer supply every year.
This issue tends to be more of an immediate problem in western Nebraska, where precipitation is generally less per year.
Sibray said the loss of groundwater in places like Box Butte County will eventually reach an equilibrium instead of completely drying out.
However, this means these areas will have to revert from irrigation-watered crops to dryland crops or rain-fed systems.
There is no surefire mathematical formula to enhance water preservation, nor are there clear definitions of the most “wasteful” form of water usage.
Sibray offered this example: If a farmer puts extra water on crops, that water might percolate through the soil and end up recharging the aquifer supply. However, if a farmer puts extra water on crops and the water evaporates from the land, it is lost from the system and wasted.
“It's difficult to define what is waste and whether it is beneficial waste or not,” Sibray said. “A lot of that is based on opinion.”
He said some of the greatest frustration he has experienced working in hydrogeology has not been while trying to scientifically solve water-related problems, but while dealing with a subject that is emotionally and politically charged. Recently, water issues and politics have mixed in Nebraska, in the question of whether the Keystone XL pipeline should go through Nebraska and across the state's aquifers.
Sibray said the Platte pipeline system has delivered crude oil from Casper, Wyo., to Wood River, Ill., since 1952. He added that the pipeline passes through southern Nebraska and a portion of the aquifer, carrying about 162,000 barrels of oil per day.
Though many XL pipeline adversaries fear oil leakage into water supplies, the Platte pipeline has never leaked due to corrosion or erosion of the line, or threatened the Nebraska water supply.
“If we don't use pipelines to transport oil, we will need to use railway systems or ships, and each method has its own risks,” Sibray said.
He added that although he works for UNL, the university has no position for or against the XL pipeline.
The key to solving water issues in Nebraska is to focus on long-term solutions and become more educated on how Nebraska water is used and how it can be replenished and preserved, he said.
Of the many aquifers in the state, the Ogallala Aquifer generates the most water. It's important to note that groundwater itself is not always synonymous with an aquifer.
“We are never going to run out of groundwater in Nebraska,” Sibray said, “but we are going to see a lot more debate on who controls the water. Scientists like me can't answer those questions.”