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These Technologies Help Kansas Farmers Use Water More Efficiently, And The State's Pitching In

Corinne Boyer
Kansas News Service
Dale Younker, a farmer and a soil health specialist with the federal Natural Resrouces Conservation Division, demonstrates how water infiltrates plowed, unplowed and covered soils at the Finney County Fairgrounds.

GARDEN CITY — Zion Roth farms with his uncle, father and brothers near Garden City. Roth uses tools that monitor weather and the soil moisture on his farm, including one that notifies him when conditions are ideal for irrigation.

“They basically take a bunch of data, and then they'll spit out a recommendation on what they think you should do, how much you should irrigate and when you should start,” Roth said.

The tool comes to him from the Kansas Water Office's Water Technology Farms program, which has 15 farms, including Zion’s, enrolled. The goal with the statewide program, available to any farm, is to keep needed water in the Ogallala Aquifer — the largest underground reservoir in the United States.

Despite heavy rains that flooded crop fields and significantly delayed planting season this year, parts of southwest Kansas are experiencing drought, which can put a strain on the aquifer. 

The water tech program began in 2016 to educate farmers about the latest irrigation gadgets, said Armando Zarco with the Kansas Water Office. One of the most popular tools farmers use is a probe that measures soil moisture and helps them know when to use center-pivot irrigation. 

Credit Corinne Boyer / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
Weston McCary, a precision agriculture technology instructor at Northwest Kansas Technical College, holds a soil monitoring device.

“It's not necessarily about what you see on the surface, but what's in the root zone,” he said.

The Kansas Water Office has $75,000 per year to offset costs for farmers, and funding from dozens of organizations, like the Kansas Corn Commission and K-State Research and Extension, is also available.

Dale Younker is a soil health specialist with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. He’s also a dryland farmer in Ellis and Rush counties.

At a Water Technology Farm Field Day in Garden City in early September, he turned on a hose that watered five soil samples to demonstrate water absorption. After a few minutes, most of the water on plowed soil wasn’t absorbed and the runoff took a lot of the soil with it. Younker then showed how cover crops and less tillage absorbed the water and improved the soil. 

Credit Corinne Boyer / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
Dale Younker shows a crowd of farmers how unplowed soil absorbs water better than plowed soil, which remains dry just below the surface.

“We're talking about infiltration here, we're talking about water holding capacity, but there are a lot of other advantages to that,” Younker said. “Water gets down to that profile and doesn't sit right on that soil surface or near the surface and then everything else starts working better. You can get on that field a lot quicker.”

Dryland farming uses no water, Younker said, and is an option for farmers — even in western Kansas.

“When we compare dryland crops from irrigated crops, at least at this point, I mean we're not going to replace all the irrigated crops,” Younker said. “We can still use some water, but you know, rather than 15 or 18 inches irrigation water per acre per year, maybe we're only putting on six or seven or whatever.”

As it stands, the state program is slated to continue indefinitely.

Corinne Boyer covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and  the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @corinne_boyer or email cboyer (at) hppr (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.