Harvesting one of earth's most precious natural resources
When considering what natural resources we need the most to survive, water ranks at or near the top. According to NASA Science, "So far, scientists know of no living things, even the smallest microorganisms that can live without liquid water."
Farmers certainly know how precious it is and depend on it to grow their crops, water their livestock and ultimately make a living. That being the case, it would only make sense to store or stock up on water when it is plentiful to utilize when it's not.
Water harvesting is a term often used when referring to this water-capturing act. At its simplest form, many people use rain barrels connected to their home gutters to catch rain water for use on outside plants and gardens.
But when thinking about growing acres and acres of row crops, the amount of water needed is far beyond the capacity of a few rain barrels.
Mark Ferguson, State Resource Conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service said there are two ways of thinking about water storage, one being structurally and the other through agronomic practices.
"When referring to water storage, most people think about ponds, reservoirs or water tanks, but one big thing they don't think about is soil, itself," he said. "The soil, especially cropland has a huge capability to hold water from rainfall. The soil acts like a sponge and can hold a tremendous amount of water. A soil with one percent organic matter in the top six inches can hold up to 27,000 gallons of water per acre."
Because of that capability, soil health becomes very important when related to the water holding ability of that cropland. Ferguson said specific conservation measures can not only help improve water quality but also conserve water and improve water efficiency to crops. Some of those measures include conservation crop rotation, no-till production practices, cover crops, mulching, mulch tillage, nutrient management and pest management.
While retaining moisture within the soil potentially holds the best promise for storing the largest of water supplies, structural measures can provide needed water supplies especially when related to the watering of livestock. That can mean something as simple as fenced ponds with limited livestock access, or something more mechanical such as pumping stations conveying water from wells to watering troughs.
In the same vein as the antiquated rain barrel, research at the University of Kentucky (UK) College of Agriculture, Food and Environment takes that idea to a larger scale although it works in much the same way.
Dr. Steve Higgins, Director of Animal and Environmental Compliance for UK's Agricultural Experiment Station has been working on a water capturing project at Owen County's Eden Shale Farm that utilizes different methods of retaining water and using existing resources.
Through the use of 3,000 gallon storage tanks and a system of cisterns, gutters and drain pipes rainwater runoff is captured from barns and is stored to use for watering cattle. In the case of the water containers, water flows to a trough made from a tractor tire utilizing gravity. The cisterns use a pump on solar energy to run water to a similar trough.
"The concept of this water harvesting is at least 3,000 years old so this is old-school. But we use practices the farmers can understand and want to see it make an impact in the first year because many of these operations are working on a shoestring budget," he said.
In addition to water harvesting, the farm space has been used to its optimum ability to feed and move cattle. All these projects tie together to help obtain the ultimate goal; making it and operations like it more profitable. But in doing so, the fringe benefits have included better utilization of existing resources and better conservation results.
"The focus here is really about making a profit. We are designing a facility that takes advantage of access, location, shape, soil improvement and its organic material, and thus we are saving money on inputs," he said. "Now if you design it correctly, the environment and conservation takes care of itself."
Eden Shale is under the direction of Kentucky Beef Network's (KBN) five managers who are appointed by the Kentucky Cattlemen's Association while an advisory committee made up of three representatives from UK and KBN oversee the overall direction and goals of bringing farmers in to be educated on the practices created at the farm.
When discussing adequate water supplies, the farm community and urban users are generally responsive to each others needs. But in the case of severe drought conditions, the two never want to be pitted against each other. Kentucky for instance, has grown its livestock production over the past two decades to the point it is the largest cattle producing state east of the Mississippi.
"Having the ability to water livestock in times of drought not only helps the producers but takes an added stress off of municipal water supplies," said Gary Larimore, Executive Director of Kentucky Rural Water Association. "One thing that will help especially when it comes to livestock production, is further initiatives to help with surface water development."
Kentucky is positioned, through research efforts, legislative initiatives and a desire to maintain farmland for generations to come, to be a national model when it comes to wise use of its precious natural resources; something which will benefit not only farms but all families.