Beef sector finds ways to minimize Ogallala depletion

Published on: Sep 25, 2013

The availability of water from the Ogallala Aquifer, lying beneath eight U.S. states 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 annually coming from the region, 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, 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 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. The study found that if current usage of the aquifer continues, as much as 69% of the aquifer would be depleted by the year 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.

"The beef industry is a multi-billion dollar industry in terms of gross receipts in Kansas," Waggoner said. "So if we do fast forward into the future, and water is going to be allocated on what has the greatest value or economic return, the economic impact of the beef industry will certainly be a part of that discussion in western Kansas."

A recent report released by the Ogallala Aquifer Program, which is made up of researchers from Kansas State along with 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, found 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. 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 report found.

In addition to feedlots, Waggoner said people should think about water use in general and how the Ogallala depletion could potentially affect everyone. Feedlots use more indirect water than cow/calf producers, who might not feel pressure from a lack of water right away.

"The cow/calf operator might be less concerned initially because most of those operations are going to be based on native grass resources," Waggoner said. "But, I think eventually we're all connected in the system. I think there will be some impacts across the board, but the degree to which they're felt is going to be the difference."

Consumers must also be aware and realize their connection in the integrated food chain, he said.