Donnell Century Farm

Devastating flooding in May 2015 claimed lives and caused millions of dollars in property damage in Oklahoma, but even that extreme rainfall over a short period of time did not provide drought relief for many of the state’s farmers.

Coping with the drought requires both conservation and innovation.

Dan Robbins, from Altus, does all he can to conserve water in his fields.

“We take care of the water, it’s our most precious resource,” says the Oklahoma Cotton Council chairman. Like other Oklahoma farmers, he uses all the tools available – including underground irrigation tape routing moisture directly to cotton’s root zone. Today’s innovative crop varieties yield more under drought stress, field-specific fertilizer rates use GPS-generated data and conservation tillage, and equipment is engineered to maintain the best soil structure for water retention.

But when the drought eliminated irrigation water releases from western Oklahoma reservoirs, Robbins realized it was time to do things differently. His idea: a big dig.

“On one farm, there were two smaller holding ponds my landlords dug in the 1950s,” explains Robbins, who had recently purchased the land from the estate of those visionary landlords. “I decided to spend about $80,000 to excavate all the silt from those ponds and join them together. That made a one-half-mile-long lake, almost 10 acres, that we finished before the 2014 season,” he says.

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Robbins hoped to capture enough water to keep growing cotton in Jackson County, where his family settled in 1901. The calculated, expensive risk paid off sooner than he expected: A localized rainstorm dumped 2 1/2 inches on that farm, and the new pond collected the runoff.

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“I used that water to irrigate five times last summer,” says Robbins, “and we grew 319 bales of cotton, which was worth about what it took to build the pond.”

Instead of losing his crop, Robbins covered his cotton production costs – along with a big chunk toward the cost of his pond.

Looking At The Bigger Picture

Like Robbins, other Oklahoma farmers have shown good sense and old-fashioned grit as they creatively cope with the drought, now estimated to have caused between $3 billion and $4 billion in farm losses, according to John Collison, Oklahoma Farm Bureau vice president for Media and Public Policy Affairs. Collison says that devastation shows a need for answers from beyond the farm. “Disaster relief (payments) have helped greatly, but they’re a short-term fix,” he says.

Altus farmer Dan Robbins built a water intake structure to create ponds to irrigate his cotton crop.

Altus farmer Dan Robbins built a water intake structure to create ponds to irrigate his cotton crop.

Cutting Edge Cattle Research

Research may provide some answers. Animal scientists at Oklahoma State are exploring cattle water usage, a topic of scant basic research since the 1960s.

“We’ve always thought of water as plentiful – or if not plentiful, at least having enough,” says Megan Rolf, OSU assistant professor of animal science. “But the extreme drought caused some places to have to choose between having water for people or for cattle.”

At OSU’s Willard Sparks Beef Research Center, Rolf and other animal scientists study how much water beef cattle consume, and how water consumption is affected by genetics and climate.

“Some estimates of heritability for water intake in laboratory animals are very high. We will utilize the data we’re collecting to find out if it is a heritable trait in beef cattle,” says Rolf.

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If it is heritable in cattle, that could then inform cattle producers making decisions on which genetics to use in their herds.

Rolf is also using wireless temperature monitors, harmlessly riding in a cow’s rumen, to measure the water consumption of cattle on pasture. By monitoring when stomach temperature drops from water consumption, researchers can figure out when and how much pastured cattle drink. Her research includes development of decision support tools in collaboration with the Oklahoma Mesonet that will help Oklahoma ranchers calculate cattle water needs based on location and weather or climate patterns.

In Altus, Robbins is making plans for a second pond that will capture rainfall and runoff from another farm. Farmers and researchers will continue digging deep to find answers to solve the state’s water questions for the longer term. “It will rain again,” says Robbins, “but this will not be the last drought.”

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