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The sun sets behind a center pivot located north of Red Cloud, Nebraska, on July 27, 2006. 


Nebraska has boosted its water productivity tremendously in farming and animal production in recent decades. This achievement, explained in a new analysis from the University of Nebraska, stems from forward-looking work by Nebraska farmers, ranchers, irrigation companies, support organizations and ag researchers in the university and private-sector communities.

The obligation for the future will be to continue the gains through creative responses and research-based improvements, in particular to meet climate challenges that may arise.

Mesfin Mekonnen, a postdoctoral researcher with NU’s Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute, has compiled the numbers, using a formula to calculate water productivity during 1990-2014 for Nebraska crop production and 1990-2016 for animal production.

Nebraska producers boosted water productivity by 65 percent for irrigated corn and an impressive 98 percent for dryland (rainfed) corn.

Water productivity rose 72 percent for irrigated soybeans and 79 percent for dryland soybeans.

“Improved varieties with high yield and good tolerance to water stress, fertilizer and soil management, and weed control have helped to increase crop yield,” Mekonnen wrote in an analysis.

As for animal production, he found, “the biggest increase (in water productivity) was for dairy milk, which almost tripled, followed by chicken and poultry meats, which increased 2.4 times between 1990 and 2016.” The beef sector increased its water productivity rate by about 80 percent.

The increases have come from a combination of production factors reinforcing each other positively, Mekonnen reported: “improvement in the livestock productivity (output per head) that has resulted in the decrease in the feed requirement per unit of animal products produced (meat, milk, egg) and improvement in the yield of the feed crops and fodders that resulted in a big decline in the water required to grow the feeds.”

Another important factor is progress in irrigation technology. Gravity irrigation accounted for 67 percent of Nebraska’s irrigated area in 1984. By 2013, the number had fallen to 15 percent, with pressurized irrigation systems now covering the rest.

Mekonnen concludes by pointing to the future and highlighting some needed actions: “But the question is, will these trends continue and to what extent? Setting benchmarks, estimating (water productivity) gaps and identifying the critical factors are potential future areas of research to keep the current trend and reach even higher (water productivity) levels.”

Mekonnen’s analysis shows the enduring value the University of Nebraska provides in understanding the state’s agricultural and natural resources needs and looking to its future.

Two members of the Water for Food Institute’s staff are contributing to a research project that has the potential to help. Ellen Emanuel and Caleb Milliken are partnering with Smart Water Metering, a Canadian start-up company, to explore the possibilities for using energy-efficient meters to help farmers better manage energy and water usage.

This spring the project began installing the first of 200 custom-developed meters in farm fields across Nebraska and other Plains states. The meters measure real-time energy and water use for individual irrigation pumps, to help producers better calculate and manage their energy and water costs.

“I hope this project helps people better understand the link between their energy costs and water use,” Emanuel said, “and I hope a better understanding will lead to carefully considered water use. I think the information we gather will supplement other technologies already available, like soil moisture probes, which measure the moisture content of fields.”

Scott Tietmeyer, a Wyoming farmer participating in the project, said, “At first I had no interest in this, but after I was challenged, I started to think about it and decided to find out.”

Through cooperative projects like this, Nebraska can build on its past progress in responsibly managing this enormously important issue for the state’s future.

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