The western Kansas economy relies heavily on crops irrigated by the Ogallala Aquifer.

These crops provide most of the grain and forage for ethanol plants and livestock operations including feedlots, dairies and hog operations in the region.

Without this reliable source these industries will not stay in the area, and when they go other support industries will also leave. To ensure a vital economy into the future now is the time to get serious about doing what needs to be done to stabilize the aquifer.

If we continue to pump more water out then is what is being recharged, we are certain to see a declining economy in the very near future.

Like many other industries, technology in the irrigation field has advanced by leaps and bounds in just a few short years. Tools like soil moisture probes and plant sensors can be used to schedule proper and efficient irrigation applications.

Subsurface drip and mobile drip systems significantly reduce evaporation rates and the amount of irrigation water needed to grow the crop. But one of the issues we continue to struggle with is that many of our fields are just not in condition to infiltrate water. Decades of intensive tillage have destroyed the pore spaces the soil needs to take in water.

Many of the pore spaces are formed when the soil has good and stable soil aggregates.

Aggregates are individual soil particles of sand, silt and clay that are bound together by root exudates and organic glues.

Microbes that live in the soil, like bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms, produce the organic glues.

These microbes flourish in a healthy soil where fields are in a no-till system.

Other pore spaces are created by earthworms and other macrofauna like centipedes, slugs and snails. Every time we disturb the soil, we basically destroy the habitat of these soil microbes.

Tillage also physically destroys the soil aggregates by breaking them down into individual soil particles.

Maintaining a living root in the soil, as much as possible throughout the year, is also essential in maintaining the needed pore spaces in the soil.

Living roots produce root exudates that help bind soil particles together into larger soil aggregates. Living plants provide a carbon source, which is food for the soil microbes, through the photosynthesis process.

Decaying roots provide direct channels for water to infiltrate into the soil.

Growing cover crops, between cash crops, is one way of maintaining a living root in the soil.

By incorporating some simple soil health practices, like no-till and cover crops, along with the other irrigation technology available, we can reduce our water use significantly.

Which can help us get to where we are only pumping as much water out of the aquifer as is being recharged. This will ensure that water will be available for all water users in the region for generations to come.

For more information about this or other soil health practices, contact Younker at dale.younker@usda.gov or call any local NRCS office.