Bill Kranz on Ethics of Water Use and Wagonhammer Ranch
This morning we headed west to a farm located on top of the Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska. This aquifer is one of the world’s largest and is approximately 174,000 square miles and is located below South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. This aquifer provides approximately 30% of the groundwater that is used for irrigation. Bill Kranz from the University of Nebraska met us out at the farm to talk about the use of water from aquifer as well as how crop production in the river flats area works. Bill explained that in 1972 the state created the Natural Resource District (NRD). These districts have the ability to impose regulations as well as water allocations. These districts also have the authority to regulate with penalties such as not allowing people access to water for irrigation purposes in a given year. This happens when people go over their limit; they are then docked inches the following year until they don’t have any inches left to be docked. In 1930 water rights were introduced and it was a 1st in time 1st in right situation. Currently, all NDR are gradually moving to have no more wells being drilled and no increase in the number of acres being irrigated.
There are monitoring programs in place to measure the amount of water in the aquifer. There are specific wells that are not used for irrigation purposes but rather for monitoring only. These wells go to the bottom of the aquifer so that the amount of water available can be measured even when people’s personal wells go dry.
In the afternoon we headed to Wagonhammer Ranch which is 25 000 acres of pasture and 10 000 acres of cropland. Wagonhammer Ranch is about 104 years old and was established in 1912. Steve Sherman and Al Schneider were kind enough to let us ride their wagons out to the pastures to see the cattle and explain a little bit about their ranching operation. Their ranch is located on the eastern edge of the sand hills region, which is a region of mixed-grass prairies. The cattle herd consists of mainly Angus and Charolais cattle with 600 head of straight Angus, 100 head of straight Charolais and 1500 head of Simmental crosses. Each individual pasture sits on 320 acres and with their rotation pattern; the cattle are on each section of the pasture for 3 days before they are moved. The entire cycle takes about 45 days to complete. There are 3 different rotation systems that they use and strive to have a stocking density of 1-cow/10 acres. This is a year round grazing system with 75 – 100 different grass species that grow naturally on the sand hills. During the winter months they might have to supplement some of the grass by feeding hay if it is a really bad winter but most years they can get through with just using the pastures. Along with having cattle on pastures, Wagonhammer Ranch also has a feedlot with 5000 head of cattle there.
In terms of herd management everything is done on horses as cattle respond better to the horses instead of 4-wheelers. Their replacements are 55 – 60% and have a less than 1% injury rate for those cattle on pasture. The largest predators that they have problems with are mountain lions and cougars. The registered herd that is located at the home farm is all artificially inseminated to maintain the breeding stock and generation lines. After that there is a clean up bull that is left with the heifers for about 45 days. On pasture they use 1 bull for 25 cows for about that 45-day range as well. They try to use 5-year-old bulls.
In terms of water use Wagonhammer Ranch has 2 sections of irrigated grass and do grow their own hay and corn. Although, most of their pastures are not irrigated.
The theme for today was water use and dryland pasture management. It is important to understand what water is available and how much you will need to be successful within a given growing season. Water is a natural resource but it is not unlimited. My first learning point for the day is about irrigation and that the fact that it is done everyday for the entire growing season. I am not from an area where irrigation is needed and I suppose I didn’t fully understand how slow irrigation was and that it took so long to capture all the water that you were pumping through the system. My second learning point was the Natural Resource Districts, unbeknownst to me they actually have the authority to impose consequences and punishments on people who do not follow the laws of water use and that the NDR’s actually do follow up. I feel that most regulation committees have an extent of follow up but most could do a better job of enforcement, it was a nice change to hear about a committee that has excellent follow up. My third learning point was about pasture management. In Ontario we usually have to fertilize and do some sort of management on most of our pastures but at Wagonhammer there is absolutely no pasture management other than the rotation of cattle. The grass species either grow or they don’t, there is no fertilization or replanting of beneficial species.
My assessment of the visit is good. I enjoyed learning about the irrigation systems and water use but it would have been interesting to be able to see the different systems up close and talk a little bit more about the pros and cons about each system. At Wagonhammer Ranch it was really cool to actually be able to go out to the pasture and see the cattle. I think it was beneficial to be able to stand on the soil as it gave myself a better idea of just how sandy it was.