30 June 2009

Working with the Water We’ve Got

A guest post by Chandler Mazour*

Growing up on a dryland corn, sorghum and wheat farm in Lawrence, Neb., my family realized the importance of water to our livelihood. Our area, in south-central Nebraska, receives 25 inches of rain annually, just enough for our sorghum and wheat, but a bit shy for the amount needed for corn on our clay soils. Timely rains made for happy harvests, while stretches of dryness and even drought felt like we were kicked in the gut. Thousands of farmers in Nebraska—and millions around the world—experience those emotions yearly.

Recently, I’ve accepted a new responsibility in Monsanto that will try to help farmers stay on the happier side of the spectrum: I’m the site lead for Monsanto’s Water Utilization Learning Center in Gothenburg, Neb., which opened on June 16. The facility studies cropping systems comprised of world-class seed genetics, agronomic practices and biotech traits, including water-use efficiency technologies such as drought-tolerant cropping systems. At Gothenburg, Monsanto hopes to provide some insight on how crops can utilize water more efficiently.

Gothenburg provides a prime location for water research on crop production because it is near the transition zone between dryland and irrigated cropland. The area receives roughly 22 inches of precipitation each year. For every 25 miles east that you travel from the town to the eastern Nebraska border, rainfall increases one inch; for every 25 miles west to the western Nebraska border, rainfall decreases one inch. In fact, Nebraska alone has more biomes than the area from eastern Nebraska to the Atlantic Ocean. With a wide range of annual rainfall (a 20-inch difference from east to west) and two different agronomic systems (dryland and irrigated), there are plenty of options to simulate different crop production and water use in Nebraska.

At Gothenburg, Monsanto is taking a “systems approach” to telling the story of water use in crops. On the 155-acre farm, we have broken down each part of the farming system (genetics, biotechnology and agronomic practices, such as weed control, irrigation management and tillage) into 80 demonstration plots that help to inform farmers and visitors how each part plays an integral role in producing more while using fewer inputs. For example, we have plots to simulate residue cover for conversation tillage at no corn residue coverage, 40 percent coverage and 100 percent coverage. At each of those plots, we are controlling for water use, either letting the plot receive a natural rainfall or irrigation to supplement rainfall. Also in those plots, we have various corn hybrids to showcase which seeds may work best under the various conditions.

The side-by-side comparisons and test plots provide an educational experience and represent real life challenges for the farmer and empower him to make the best decisions for his farm.

But the key factor that we’re looking at in all of this is water’s role in crop development and growth. At some point during the growing season, millions of acres of cropland undergo some drought stress. According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, annual losses from drought have been estimated at $6-8 billion in the United States. In addition, there are many farmers who are overwatering their crops in irrigated operations. At Gothenburg, we have the ability to control water use in various cropping systems—whether it’s simulating drought conditions or overwatering a plot to simulate a high-than-average annual rainfall. These capabilities enable Monsanto to provide an opportunity for growers to find the best water management practices for their farm and, ultimately, increase yields using fewer key inputs.

Bottom Line: Agriculture accounts for more than 70 percent of global freshwater use. If the industry reduces its water footprint by 1 percent, we save as much freshwater as five-and-a-half Lake Superiors. With centers like Gothenburg, we may be able to do that faster than imagined and help farmers make adjustments to their farming operation to grow higher yields with fewer inputs.
* Manager of Monsanto’s Water Utilization Learning Center

4 comments:

  1. It's going to take some doing to get the Luddites and astrology buffs to accept that drought-tolerant GMO crops are an important component in our being able to reduce agricultural water use without reducing the production of food. While they're hand-wringing and filing lawsuits, Monsanto is actually doing something useful about a problem that dwarfs most others over the next 30 years.

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  2. Since we as humans are overusing water and wasting it in inefficient ways, why don't we change our water practices, instead of engineering our seeds to be more efficient on our behalf?

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  3. Chandler Mazour30 June, 2009 14:12

    You make an excellent point. That is exactly what we are doing at our Learning Center. We are taking a holistic approach to help learn how to use water more efficiently in agriculture. This includes traditional plant breeding and agronomic practices (reduced tillage, increased residue cover) and finally adding on the biotech component. We feel that this holistic approach must be used to address the daunting challenges.

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  4. Anonymous,
    "Waste" in the absence of markets, is all in the eye of the beholder, not an absolute. Proper price signals will continue to encourage more conservation and improved technology for irrigation. Still, failing to achieve a maximum economic yield for every acre of land, acre-foot of water, hour of labor, and gallon of diesel is wasteful, IMO. That's why we need to continue to improve our seeds, the way we have for 10,000 years or more.
    Drought tolerant seeds may have huge environmental benefits, with negligible risks. Another very promising technology is in making more crops salt-tolerant, which would greatly expand our water supply. It could even make desalination economical for some agriculture, since the amount of energy required to get water to a brackish state is less than getting it to a "normal" level. The problem of looming food shortages is not farmer hyperbole, it is probably as widely accepted as the existence of man-made global warming. Problem is, the food issue will hit sooner, and has no benefits for anyone, even farmers.

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