Farmers searching for ways to shelter profits from unknown variables like drought often face tough decisions. Small- and medium-sized farms in the West, many of which are family operations, are tightly connected to the availability of water. That makes deciding how much water should be allotted to irrigate a particular crop – if any water at all – an important decision.
During a growing season when the availability of water might be in question, farmers face the risk of losing money if water resources were to dry up or enough rain doesn’t fall. But James Pritchett, professor in Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences, said farmers have alternatives other than completely drying up land if they make good choices about what crops to grow and knowing how much water those crops will need to produce a viable yield.
"Reducing water by half to a corn crop won’t cut the yield in half," Pritchett said. "But sorting out whether it’s best to spread water, not irrigate or adopt innovative crop rotations is a difficult task."
Pritchett is part of a team of Colorado State researchers seeking to devise cropping strategies for small- and medium-sized farms producing corn, alfalfa and other crops so they remain economically viable in an environment in which water is increasingly scarce. Pritchett and his team recently were awarded about $500,000 over 39 months through a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to conduct the research. The project is supported by the National Research Initiative of the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service.
"In an environment of increasing water competition, smaller farmers feel as though they must sell out," Pritchett said. "Our research seeks strategies to keep them viable."
Rapid population growth in Colorado and the West is the primary reason for the reallocation of water resources. Colorado’s population is expected to grow by 65 percent over the next 25 years, and that has the potential to dry up over 225,000 acres of irrigated farmland to meet the needs of those new residents, Pritchett said.
Pritchett’s research will focus on four areas:
– Developing cropping systems that improve efficiency and sustainability of water use by optimizing irrigation water use at the farm scale.
– Analyzing the profitability of potential irrigation systems in uncertain precipitation and farm price environments.
– Providing initial examination of the impact of changing cropping patterns on regional economies.
– Conducting an innovative outreach and education program that assists small- and medium-sized farms when making water allocation and crop rotation decisions.
Once the results have been analyzed, the information will be shared with farmers to assist them in deciding the best strategies to allow their farming operations to remain profitable, even if their water resources are reduced.
For more information about agriculture and water resources, visit online at www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/water/pubwater.html.