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Researchers, farmers concerned about intense drought conditions, water scarcity

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Photo courtesy of Calvin Trostle

A dryland wheat variety trial with low yield due to drought at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research & Extension Center, Lubbock.

Longer drought periods and limited water supply in Texas have farmers and researchers working around the clock to develop new technology, crop varieties and spread awareness.  

In 2019 Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension estimated the state’s food and fiber systems contributed $159.3 billion to the Texas economy, or 8.6% of total state GDP. Any negative effect on the industry can result in extreme consequences, which is why Agrilife researchers and Texas farmers are working to get ahead of the problem. 

Professor and extension agronomist Calvin Trostle said the AgriLife program is working to help farmers face the tough challenges of Texas farming in two ways. The first is through their research program. 

“Many AgriLife colleagues are working with multiple crops to improve resilience during tough conditions,” Trostle said. “For example, testing cotton varieties that can handle hotter temperatures and more efficiently use water.”

The second way in approaching agricultural challenges is by spreading awareness. The AgriLife Extension program allows professors to directly interact with the community, Trostle said. 

“The extension program’s work is geared towards helping farmers,” Trostle said. “Giving them as much information as possible to help them make decisions about what crop to plant, how much fertilizer to use and properly timing irrigation, ensuring they have crops at the end of the season.” 

Though farmers are learning more efficient production methods, Trostle said farmers in West Texas are noticing another challenge. 

“In 2022 we had some temperatures in Lubbock over 100 F before May 1,” Trostle said. 

Trostle has worked with crops such as wheat, grain sorghum, peanuts, sunflower and alfalfa. He said he made some observations when dealing with long drought periods. 

“In West Texas, all alfalfa and peanuts are grown with irrigation,” Trostle said. “Even though we are in a drought, farmers are able to move forward with crop production because of irrigation technology.” 

Many of the challenges facing modern agriculture are not new. Researchers typically focus on trying to improve conventional farming methods, Trostle said. This often includes creating crop variants and special fertilizers. However, a new challenge has emerged over the years: water shortage. 

“Water resources for irrigation are declining gradually over time,” Trostle said. “Farmers realize they don’t have enough irrigation water anymore, even if they have good irrigation systems, there just isn’t enough water to grow as many crops in some areas.”

Trostle said crops like peanuts, alfalfa and corn require more water compared to other crops. This has sparked a conversation among researchers about moving their focus toward forage production rather than grain due to a better overall value. 

“In West Texas we don’t sell corn, peanuts and alfalfa,” Trostle said. “We sell water.”

As of now, Trostle said dryland farmers could be at higher risk of feeling the drought due to lack of rainfall. 

“Dryland farming in West Texas is difficult,” Trostle said. “For 2023 it does not look good, we don’t have much moisture in the soil, and it’s very dry. That could change with May and June rainfall, but right now it doesn’t look pretty.” 

The effects of the drought can be seen first-hand by Trostle with the wheat trial he is growing, he said. 

“I have a dryland wheat variety and it looked pretty good until about six weeks ago,” Trostle said. “It has finally run out of moisture.” 

In the Lubbock County area, Trostle said farmers are having to shift what they usually grow due to lack of rainfall and water available. 

“The Texas Panhandle had a lot of corn and grain production,” Trostle said. “Many of those farmers don’t have as much water now as they used to. Corn can still be grown but not at such a large scale, less water forces these changes.” 

Director of the A&M AgriLife Blackland Research & Extension Center Raghavan Srinivasan is one of the developers of the new Soil and Water Assessment Tool, or SWAT. 

“SWAT is mainly used to study and evaluate the impact of land management decisions,” Srinivasan said. “We are then able to see how their choices change production, the yield they will receive, how much water will be needed, and the amount of fertilizer they will need to apply.” 

The SWAT tool doesn’t only provide information to farmers but also to policymakers, Srinivasan said. 

“Policy analysts and others in Washington use our data to evaluate current and future policy,” Srinivasan said. “They can see the impact decisions might have on farmers’ productivity, the environment and the economy.” 

One key variable that SWAT must account for is weather, Srinivasan said the tool uses historical weather data to predict crop yields, soil erosion and water quality.

“Mother Nature determines what we can do,” Srinivasan said. “That’s why we must be able to project various weather scenarios, this helps reduce the farmers’ potential loss.”

Based on weather trends, Srinivasan predicts we might be in for another dry season.

“The earth tends to have wet and dry cycles,” Srinivasan said. “We are currently primed for another dry cycle in the next one to two years.” 

SWAT’s impact extends far beyond Texas and the US, informing management and policy decisions worldwide.

“We are the number one model being used worldwide,” Srinivasan said. “There is not another model that has even come close to our modeling system.” 

A&M has also partnered with the private industry to explore additional uses for its modeling tools. One partner is IBM, together they are developing a mobile app that will enable farmers in water-scarce areas to determine the irrigation needs of a given crop in real time.

“[A&M] is a leader in developing new technologies for agriculture,” Srinivasan said. “This is to make sure that we have sustainable production while keeping the environment safe.” 

Assistant professor and extension agronomist Reagan Noland works with cropping systems and looks at the different rotations and tillage practices. Many of these practices are geared toward better adapting to the environment. Noland also works in deficit irrigation and tries to minimize the amount of water being used. 

“We work with irrigation scheduling, timing duration and intensity of water events,” Noland said. “This is relative to available water and how that influences crop growth and ultimate production.” 

Noland also conducts a lot of variety testing, specifically cotton and wheat crops. Noland said this provides data that can help inform growers’ decisions in the area.  

“We plant several different varieties in an experimental research trial,” Noland said. “This can help determine which crops work best in our environment by allowing us to compare which varieties did better under extreme heat or drought conditions.”

With the data currently available Noland said many farmers are worried about the short supply of water. 

“As far as the outlook on 2023 in my area [San Angelo],” Noland said. “A lot of growers are stalled out and scratching their heads wondering what is going to happen after the horrible drought we came out of last year. We haven’t had rain to restore our soil profile moisture or groundwater that we irrigate out of.” 

The expected lack of rain forces farmers to reassess what they will grow next season and to do it more efficiently. 

“We try to be as efficient as we can,” Noland said. “Growing the best crop with the least amount of water.” 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently declared the climate pattern La Niña over. Noland said that this offers some short-term relief. 

“We’re coming off the third La Niña in a row,” Noland said. “We’re out of that cycle now, and it’s exciting, but the near-term forecast still isn’t good.” 

Noland said that another good way to try and lessen the effect of a hot and dry season is for farmers to diversify their operations. 

“We don’t have many producers that just rely on one crop,” Noland said. “Diversity of our systems grants us some stability.” 

This can be helpful to areas of Texas that risk running out of water. 

“In the high plains area around Lubbock, they are on the Ogallala Aquifer,” Noland said. “The aquifer has very little to no recharge, their whole land use systems are changing because they are running out of irrigation water.” 

Agriculture economics/plant and environmental soil science senior Ryan Schronk is a sixth-generation farmer who grows corn, cotton, wheat and sunflower in Hillsboro. Schronk said water is a main driver in how successful the season will be. 

“Water is our limiting resource,” Schronk said. “During the summers when the corn is tasseling and the cotton is blooming, drought can really impact our ability to make money.” 

Schronk’s farm is completely dry land, so he cannot depend on irrigation systems and must find alternative ways to protect his crops during the summer. 

“We use conservation tillage,” Schronk said. “The idea is to build organic matter up in the soil while also helping limit the soil’s exposure to the sun’s harsh temperatures. This can help reduce losing a lot of water from evaporation.” 

Another method Schronk uses is drought-tolerant seeds. 

“We’re in central Texas and we know there are going to be summers when it’s hot and dry,” Schronk said. “We plant some varieties that are drought tolerant, this gives us a risk mitigation strategy.” 

Despite trying to reduce the impacts of drought, Schronk still faced some losses. 

“Last year we did have a significant drought,” Schronk said. “It affected the cotton and corn pretty badly, yields were down about 30-40%.”

Schronk said these challenges are a part of the job and that he just has to work around it. 

“We can’t just go out and say this year there will be a drought,” Schronk said. “We’re making decisions about what seeds we’re gonna be planting months in advance.” 

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