Irrigation crucial to Nebraska agriculture (copy) (copy)

The world’s population is projected to grow by some 1.3 billion people by 2050, up from the current 7.7 billion. Meeting that increased food demand will require major increases in agricultural production. New findings by the University of Nebraska point to how the state’s producers can achieve production gains. Analysis by NU’s Daugherty Water for Food Institute says, in fact, that hefty increases are possible in Nebraska — as much as 21% in production for corn and up to 19% for soybeans.

There’s an important “if” involved: Such increases can come within reach in coming years if Nebraska producers achieve recommended improvements in water use.

The institute’s just-released Water Productivity Report provides vital help in that regard, by providing specific water-use goals for different parts of Nebraska. The benchmarks vary by region across the state, in recognition that rainfall and other production conditions vary considerably, west to east. The researchers’ focus on water use is fitting, given the enduring importance of water availability in shaping Nebraska’s agricultural prospects going back to territorial days.

Nebraska’s past successes in boosting water-use productivity offer encouragement, the NU researchers say. From 1990 to 2014, the state’s ag producers increased their water productivity impressively — by 79% for soybeans and 71% for corn. Those gains stemmed from improved yields, better farm management irrigation and pumping limits.

The stronger yields for corn were due to “hybrid varieties with excellent water stress tolerance, increased planting densities, improved fertilizer use, soil management and weed control.” All those factors will continue to be important if further gains are to be achieved. Through superior water productivity in particular, Nebraska corn yields are 23% higher than in Kansas and 32% higher than in Texas. The report cites the positive results in three Nebraska natural resources districts (Central Platte, Lower Niobrara and Tri-Basin) thanks to adoption of more efficient irrigation and regulatory limits on pumping. As a result of those steps, the irrigation application rate in the three NRDs during 2004-13 fell by an average of 20% for cornfields and 8% for soybean fields.

Production gains through improved water productivity are possible for Nebraska’s livestock sector, too, the report says, though further detailed research is needed to develop specific water-use goals. In general, Nebraska producers should aim to use crop byproducts and crop residues, rather than primary crops, for feed. “In the case of Nebraska,” the report says, “where more than 80% of the irrigation water is pumped from the Ogallala Aquifer, the use of by-products and crop residues will help to reduce the overall groundwater pumping to produce feed.”

The report details notable ways in which Nebraska’s livestock sector has boosted its efficiency in recent decades. While the state’s total production of animal products has almost quadrupled since the 1960s, animal feed requirements in Nebraska rose only 2.5 times. That’s due to a range of productivity achievements by producers plus improvements in the nutritive value of feeds.

The bottom line from the report: Sound water use and increased agricultural production can go hand in hand in Nebraska, with benefits here and globally. The findings by NU have great value in helping point the way ahead.

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