THE availability of water from the Ogallala Aquifer, lying beneath eight U.S. states stretching from South Dakota to Texas, undoubtedly helped cattle feeders long ago decide where to raise beef.
Feedlot operations along the aquifer, from southwest Kansas to the Texas High Plains, comprise more than 36% of U.S. beef coming from the region annually, according to an announcement from Kansas State University.
Justin Waggoner, beef systems specialist at Kansas State Research & Extension's southwest area office in Garden City, Kan., noted that in the past, the Ogallala Aquifer was perceived as an infinite resource that could support all water uses — urban and agricultural. Today, people are aware that this is not the case.
David Steward, a professor of civil engineering at Kansas State University, and a team of researchers recently completed a study that examined the future of the Ogallala Aquifer and found that if current usage of the aquifer continues, as much as 69% of the aquifer would be depleted by 2060 (Feedstuffs, Sept. 2). Usage is exceeding the recharge of the aquifer, which has led to its depletion.
The Kansas beef industry could potentially take a hit if water becomes more scarce, which would affect the state's economy. Waggoner said it is hard to pinpoint what areas are in the most trouble when it comes to water availability. Considering the aquifer in a large general sense, he said, there are some areas that are struggling with water today, while other areas are in better shape.
Although differences in water availability exist, he said, conservation should be promoted across the board.
A recent report released by the Ogallala Aquifer Program — which is made up of researchers from Kansas State, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, Texas A&M AgriLife Research & Extension Service, Texas Tech University and West Texas A&M University — examined the impact of the beef industry in the southern Ogallala region.
The report, available at www.agrilifebookstore.org/product-p/eag-001.htm, notes that the beef industry has a large economic impact in the region and return on investment for water. When combining the production and processing sectors, the beef industry contributes $29.8 billion in annual economic output and more than 60,000 jobs to the regional economy.
The average direct water use for each animal in a feedlot is about 12.5 gal. per day, Waggoner said, explaining that when combining direct and indirect water usage, the beef industry uses 28.6% of the agricultural water, most of it by feedlots. The remaining 71.4% is used for irrigated crop production and other direct livestock use, the study found.
In addition to feedlots, Waggoner said people should think about water use in general and how the Ogallala's depletion could potentially affect everyone. Feedlot producers use more indirect water than cow/calf producers, who might not feel pressure from reduced water availability right away.
Feedlot managers are aware of the Ogallala depletion issue, Waggoner said, adding that several feedlots are working to conserve water. For starters, most runoff water from feedlots goes into a lagoon system that will later be re-applied to cropland via irrigation.
Recycling water if there are overflow tanks, particularly in the wintertime, when tanks are continuously flowing to keep from freezing, is another method of water conservation in the feedlot sector. Capturing the overflow water and putting it back into the system, or utilizing it for another purpose, is important to help save direct water.
Indirectly, Waggoner said one thing that has helped the water footprint of the beef industry is improving feed efficiency in cattle.
Modernizing feedlots, feeding technologies and improving genetics to develop cattle that are more feed efficient all can help reduce water use.