Tomorrow’s farms and ranches will use less water than today’s
At Spring Born, a greenhouse in western Colorado near Silt, you see few, if any, dirty fingernails. Why would you? Hands never touch soil in this 113,400-square-foot greenhouse. You do see automation, long trays filled with peat sliding on conveyors under computer-programmed seeding devices. Once impregnated, the trays roll into the greenhouse.
Thirty days after sprouting, trays of green and red lettuce, kale, arugula, and mustard greens slide from the greenhouse to be shorn, weighed and sealed in plastic clamshell packages. Hands never touch the produce.
“The best lettuce I’ve ever had from a package,” said my companion three days after our tour when we finally broke into the package we’d received. “It just tastes fresh.”
Water savings of this automated agricultural production had motivated our visit. Spring Born says it needs 95% less water compared to leafy greens grown using Colorado River water a thousand miles downstream in Arizona and California. That region supplies more than 90% of the nation’s lettuce. At Silt, the water comes from two shallow wells that plumb the riverine aquifer of the Colorado River, delivering about 20 gallons per minute. The water is then treated before it is piped into the greenhouse. This is agriculture like nowhere else.
Great precautions are taken to avoid contamination and prevent the spread of pathogens. Those entering the greenhouse must don protective equipment such that you might wonder if you had instead wandered into the surgery ward of a hospital. There’s no opportunity for passing birds or critters to leave droppings. As such, there is no need for chlorine washes, which most operations use to disinfect. Those washes also dry out the greenery, shortening the shelf life and making it less tasty. The Spring Born packages have an advertised shelf life of 23 days.
Spring Born likely constitutes the most capital-intensive agricultural enterprise in Colorado. Total investment in the 250-acre operation, which also includes traditional hay farming and cattle production, has been $30 million. The technology and engineering come from Europe, which has 30 such greenhouses. The United States has a handful.
Innovation, such as what is employed at Spring Born, at the intersection of agriculture and water today occurs in Colorado operations both massive and minuscule. Those innovators range from farmers whose families broke the soil and got into the business generations ago to those who have been producing food for only a few years. Most are traditionally hands-on. Spring Born is deliberately hands-off.
This tinkering in the agribusiness that in Colorado generates $47 billion in economic activity has many motivations, but most tie to one reality: The future is one of less water. So how exactly can agriculture use water more judiciously?
The Thirsty Future
A Desert Research Institute study published in the April 2022 Journal of Hydrometeorology concluded that the warming atmosphere is a thirstier one. Modeling in the study suggests that crops in some parts of Colorado already need 8% to 15% more water than 40 years ago. Agricultural adaptations to use less water are happening out of necessity.
Colorado has warmed about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 120 years. Warming has accelerated, with the five hottest summers on record occurring since 2000.
Higher temperatures impact the amount of snowfall and amount of snowpack converted to water runoff. “As the climate warms, crops and forested ecosystems alike use water more rapidly,” says Peter Goble, a research associate at the Colorado Climate Center. “As a result, a higher fraction of our precipitation goes into feeding thirsty soils and a lower fraction into filling our lakes, streams and reservoirs. Essentially, a warmer future is a drier future.”
Dry, hot years have far outpaced wet years since 2000. Cool years have been nearly absent. This aridification has become particularly evident in southern Colorado. This year was a good example of the drying trend.
Snowpack was around average in the San Juan Mountains, but spring arrived hot and windy. Snow was all but gone by late May, surpassed in its hurried departure only in 2018 and 2002. Farmers dependent on water from the Dolores River, still reeling from last year’s meager supplies, were required to accept lesser supplies yet again as the growing season began this year.
The Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise, the most southwesterly agriculture operation in Colorado, expected less than 30% of its regular allocation from McPhee Reservoir, as of June. This was on top of a marginal year in 2021, too. Simon Martinez, general manager of the operation, said just 15 of the 110 center pivots had crops under cultivation in early June. Employment was cut in half, and the 650-head cow-calf operation had been slimmed to 570.
Aridification best describes the drying underway in southwestern Colorado. April 1 snow-water equivalent, or the amount of water contained by the snow, in the San Juans has averaged 9.7 inches since 2000, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. During the prior 60 years it was 12.3 inches.
The warming climate is not alone in spurring adaptations and causing worries. In many river basins, irrigators must also worry about delivery of water to downstream states specified by interstate compacts.
Groundwater declines interlace with struggles to meet compact deliveries. The 2019 Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan projects that 6% to 7% of irrigated acres supplied by groundwater in the state will be lost due to aquifer sustainability issues, primarily in the Arkansas, Republican and Rio Grande basins.
Declines of the Ogallala and other aquifers of the High Plains have been well documented. Consider output of the wells supplying Colorado State University’s Plainsman Research Center at Walsh. Arriving there in 1989, Kevin Larson, the superintendent, had one well that produced 250 gallons per minute. Now it produces so little, 18 to 19 gallons per minute, that no attempt is made to pump it. Production from the two other wells at the station has also dropped precipitously.
“Our wells are dropping, so we need to be more cautious with our water use,” says Larson.
Water conservation districts formed in the last 20 years are paying farmers to decrease pumping and planting to save the water that remains in the aquifers, comply with compacts, and transition to less water use.
Directors of the Republican River Water Conservation District, in northeastern Colorado, where producers rely on Ogallala aquifer water, were confident and successful in incentivizing the voluntary retirement of 4,000 acres by June 2020. They are confident of inducing the retirement of 10,000 acres in the area between Wray and Burlington before 2025. The aquifer there has been falling 8 inches a year. They’re less sure of achieving the 25,000 acres that compact compliance will require by 2029.
Rio Grande Water Conservation District directors in south-central Colorado have an even greater lift. They must figure out how to retire 40,000 irrigated acres by 2029. They’re at 13,000.
High commodity prices have discouraged farmer participation. The pot of local, state and federal money hasn’t been sufficient to fund high enough incentives to compete with commodity pricing. A bill, SB22-028, Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund, which passed in the Colorado Legislature in May, will allocate $60 million to both the Republican and Rio Grande basins to help them comply with interstate river compacts by reducing the acreage outlined above. The law says that if voluntary reductions cannot be attained, Colorado may resort to mandatory reductions in groundwater extraction.
Out of the Age of Water Development
Even if the Republican River Water Conservation District’s 2029 deadline is met, the basin’s long-term outcome remains uncertain, says Rod Lenz, president of the district’s board of directors. Lenz’s family migrated from Weld County to the Republican River Basin in 1974. It was a boom time, not unlike Colorado’s gold- and silver-mining era, in this case producing wealth by mining the Ogallala using the new technology of center-pivot sprinklers.
Taking the long, big picture view, Colorado spent most of its first 100 to 150 years as a state developing its water resources.
Colorado’s farmers first settled in places where water was most plentiful, along its creeks and rivers. Among the last places to see the plow was land along the Kansas and Nebraska borders. Dryland farming, fed only by rain, came first, then gasoline-powered pumps allowed limited pumping of water from the underlying aquifers.
Center-pivot sprinklers dramatically expanded the geography available for farming. Don Brown remembers well the transformation. On the Brown family farm, his father commissioned what may have been the first circular sprinkler in Yuma County to use the Ogallala aquifer.
Brown, a former agriculture commissioner for Colorado, says that a 425-foot well was drilled in 1962, when he was a boy. It cost $10,970—a “fortune back then,” says Brown. The center-pivot sprinkler cost was in the same price range, another fortune. Brown’s father was so concerned about whether the technology was right that he summoned the inventor to inspect it. Frank Zybach had invented the technology in 1940 while farming at Strasburg, east of Denver.
Was it worth it? The jury was soon in. “One season, 150 days,” says Brown. “It worked!”
Irrigation was available for corn’s full growing season. With that, farmers had a new model for irrigation in Yuma County, one independent of rainfall and flood irrigation.
Other center-pivot sprinklers soon followed, expanding the amount of land in the rolling hills of the Republican River Basin available for irrigation. In turn, the water expanded the yields. Dryland corn might yield 50 or 60 bushels per acre. Irrigation boosts yields to 300 bushels.
Irrigation vaulted Yuma County into one of the nation’s top-producing agricultural counties, where it remains.
That phase of irrigated agriculture, the development of new water sources, has now almost entirely ended. The bucket is virtually empty. The new era poses an inverse challenge: sustaining agriculture with less water.
From Sprinklers to Crop Selection
Even as center-pivot sprinklers are removed in the Republican River Basin and San Luis Valley, they are going up in the Grand Valley of western Colorado. There, instead of drafting groundwater, they are distributing Colorado River water.
The geography of the valley from Palisade to Fruita and Loma does not immediately favor center pivots. They work best as a pie within a square, a full 40 or 160 acres. Parcels in the Grand Valley tend to be more rectangular. That means a pivot can arc maybe three-quarters of a circle. That slows the payoff on investment.
Why the pivot, so to speak, on pivots? Perry Cabot, a water resource specialist with Colorado State University’s Western Colorado Research Center near Fruita, sees two, sometimes overlapping, motivations. (Cabot also serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.)
The greater motivation is the desire to save labor. That itself is good, he says, because the investment reflects an intention to continue farming. “People are obviously doing it for the long haul,” he says.
The other motivation appears to be water related. “The feedback I get is, to paraphrase the farmers, at some point in the future we are going to have less water to farm with and so we must prepare for that,” Cabot says.
Incremental improvements have improved efficiency. Experiments at the CSU research center in Walsh have shown conclusively the advantage of long-drop nozzles that spray the water just a couple feet off the ground, reducing evaporation.
Technology can help perfect a producer’s irrigation set up. Consider work in the San Luis Valley by Agro Engineering, crop consultants who seek to assist growers in producing maximum value with minimum water application. Potatoes, the valley’s largest cash crop, thrive in warm, but not hot, days and cool nights. They need 16 to 18 inches of water per year, of which 13 to 15 inches comes from irrigation. This includes two inches applied during planting, to moisten soils sufficiently for germination. They do not do well with too much water, explains Jason Lorenz, an agricultural engineer who is a partner in the firm. That, and the need to align use with legal requirements, gives growers compelling reason to closely monitor water.
To evenly distribute water, Agro Engineering first checks sprinkler vents, to be sure they are working properly. “You won’t get any more yield by over-applying water,” Lorenz observes.
Later, the company uses aerial surveys conducted from airplanes to analyze whether the desired uniformity is being achieved. The latest advancement, multispectral aerial photography, enables the detection of green, red and near-infrared light levels. These images indicate the amount of vegetative biomass, vegetative vigor, and the greenness of the leaves. Variations show where crops are healthier and where there are problems, including insects and diseases, water quality, or soil chemistry problems.
Any discussion of water and agriculture in Colorado must include a focus on corn. In 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, almost 1.4 million acres in the state were devoted to corn, with well more than half of that irrigated.
Corn is also thirsty. So far, efforts to produce corn with less water have come up short, says Colorado State University water resources specialist Joel Schneekloth. But if corn still needs the same amount of water, researchers have succeeded in producing greater yields.
How about alternatives to corn, especially in those areas drafting the Ogallala and other aquifers?
Sunflowers, used to make cooking oil but also for confections, came on strong, but acreage shrank from 132,000 acres to 59,000 acres statewide between 2010 and 2019. For farmers, corn pays far better.
Quinoa may be possible. It consumes less water. But no evidence has emerged that it’s viable in eastern Colorado. The demand is small. Demand also remains small for black-eyed peas, which a bean processing facility in Sterling accepts along with pinto, navy and other beans.
“We can find low-water crops, but they just don’t have huge markets,” explains Schneekloth who conducts studies for the Republican and South Platte basins at a research station in Akron. There has to be enough production to justify processing facilities, he said. One such processing facility proximate to the Ogallala aquifer in Colorado—it was in Goodland, Kan.—closed because it didn’t have enough business.
Nearly all of the corn in Colorado is grown to feed livestock. What if, instead of eating beef or pork, we ate plant-based substitutes? The shift, says Schneekloth, would save water. It takes seven pounds of forage and grain to produce one pound of meat. For a meat substitute, it’s closer to one for one. But that tradeoff isn’t that simple in most places. Much of the cattle raised in Colorado start on rangeland, feeding off of unirrigated forage, which is not suitable for crop production.
As for corn, growers are doing their part to make production more sustainable. Between 1980 and 2015 corn farmers reduced soil loss by 58% per acre, improved irrigation efficiency by 46% per bushel, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 31% per bushel, according to the National Corn Growers Association, citing data from Field to Market.
Besides, Schneekloth says he has a hard time imagining a mass migration to meat substitutes in the near future. Plant-based substitutes cost far more and the product, to many people, remains unsatisfactory. “Mass migration will be a hard one to sell,” he says. “Maybe eventually, but it won’t happen for a long time, I don’t think.”
Financial reports confirm Schneekloth’s skepticism. Plant-based meat remains a morsel of the market. A study by the University of Kentucky researchers published in a journal, Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, found that U.S. beef sales topped $110 billion in 2021 compared to $1.5 billion for plant-based alternatives. Meat alternatives mostly displaced chicken and fish, not beef or pork. The Financial Times reported that U.S. sales of plant-based meat overall declined 0.5% in 2021 after a 46% increase in 2020.
If we continue to grow corn to feed livestock, can we work at the intersection of soil and water? Soil health has emerged as a lively new frontier of research and practice and the integration of livestock and crop production is one of its tenets—manure adds nutrients to the soil and builds organic matter, improving soil health.
Soil, unlike dirt, is alive. It’s full of organisms, necessary for growing plants. Wiggling worms demonstrate fecund soil, but most networking occurs on the microscopic level. This organic matter is rich with fungi and bacteria. Iowa’s rich soils have organic content of up to 9%. The native soils of Colorado’s Eastern Plains might have originally had 5%. The farms of southeastern Colorado now have 1% to 3%.
Derek Heckman is on a quest to boost the organic matter of his soil to 5% or even higher. It matters because water matters entirely on the 500 acres he farms in southeastern Colorado, just west of Lamar.
“Water is the limiting factor for our farms a majority of the time,” he explains. “We are never able to put on enough water.”
Heckman’s water comes from the Fort Lyon Canal, which takes out from the Arkansas River near La Junta and meanders 100 miles just beyond Lamar. His farm is about halfway along the canal’s journey. Corn is the end game for Heckman, and corn needs 21 inches of water. In a good year, he says, his land can get 25 to 30 runs from the ditch. One run on the 200-acre farm should be able to irrigate 1.2 inches across 90 acres using a pivot. Last year he got 16 runs. This year? As of early May, Heckman was expecting no more than 10 runs.
Organic matter affects these margins sharpened in the Arkansas Valley by rising temperatures and competition from cities for limited supplies of water. Colorado Springs to the north has begun using its allocated water from the river, Heckman notes, which means less water for him and other users lower on the ditch.
“The more organic matter there is, the more the moisture-holding capacity of the soil,” he explains. This is particularly important as water supplies dwindle during the hot days of summer.
“Let’s say we have 105 degrees every day for two weeks,” says Heckman. “Organic content of your soil of 3% might allow you to go four additional days without irrigation and without having potential yield loss or, even worse, crops loss.”
Heckman, 31, was among a graduating class of 18 from McClave High School. His future, he thought, was living in a city. He went off to Iowa State University to study architecture but ended up getting a degree in horticulture. He and his wife returned to southeastern Colorado in 2017. Now he might best be described as an architect of the subterranean. His practice involves creating highways in the soil, ways for water to infiltrate. His work is regenerative agriculture.
In explaining this, Heckman shies away from the word sustainable. It’s too limiting, he says. “I don’t want to just sustain what I’m doing. Regenerative is bringing the soil back to life.”
Growing corn in the traditional way of the late 20th century involved plowing fields before planting. The working of the field might involve five passes by a tractor, compacting the soil and reducing its porosity. The plows disrupt microbial life.
For several decades, farmers and scientists have been exploring the benefits of less intrusive tilling of the soil. Beginning about 20 years ago, Heckman’s father was one of them. The scientific literature is becoming robust on the benefits of what is generically called “conservation tillage.”
Irrigated corn fields of eastern Colorado can require 10% less irrigation water depending upon tillage and residue management practices, according to a 2020 paper published by Schneekloth and others. Another paper, this one by Emmanuel Deleon and other researchers from CSU’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, similarly found that “conservation tillage offers promise for the restoration of soil quality in furrow-irrigated systems of the High Plains region in Colorado.”
Louise Comas, a plant physiologist at CSU’s Water Management Systems Research Center, gets excited when talking about how natural processes can be used in soils to make nutrients available to plants through microbial partners. Water is an element of this.
“If you use a little less water the plants will create a bigger root system, which could allow plants to increase interactions with microbials,” she explains. The goal is figuring out the sweet spot, defined by restricting water enough to promote more extensive root growth but not so much as to hinder plant productivity and decrease microbial biomass.
Heckman has been doing his own experiments, trying to find the best balance of cover crops, minimal tilling, and the right mix of chemicals.
To improve the organic matter in his soil, Heckman plants cover crops of cereal rye and legumes after the autumn harvest. This puts roots down, part of what Heckman describes as an attempt to create subterranean channels for water infiltration and for sunshine. It can also provide marginal food for cattle allowed to feed in the corn fields before the spring planting.
Cover crops serve several purposes but are not the end goal. Corn, when it’s planted, can tolerate little competition. So he uses herbicides to kill the cover crops. He is a farmer of organic matter, but he is not an organic farmer. Artificial fertilizer and pesticides are tools, he says, to be used as sparingly as possible. When the corn has emerged and can survive competition, he plants cover crops again, this time mixes of cereal rye, red clover, cow peas, radish, flax and buckwheat. Some of those cover crops actually discourage insects and diseases damaging to the corn.
After returning to the farm, Heckman continued the journey begun by his father 20 years before. He set out to do more and became one of several dozen farms in Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado getting funding through The Farms Project. The Colorado Conservation Tillage Association funnels federal funding to Colorado participants, of which Heckman is the only irrigator. The grant has given him the opportunity to experiment.
“A lot of guys are comfortable with what grandpa did and what dad did, and that’s what they do,” he says. “I want to see changes in our operation.”
Summing up, he ticks off what he understands to be core tenants of regenerative agriculture: 1) minimum tillage, 2) leaving roots in the soil as long as possible, 3) integration of livestock into the fields, 4) augmenting the soil by keeping residue on top; and 5) diversifying the plants. It might not be possible to do all five, but that’s the goal.
Those same principles are echoed by the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s soil health program. The program was borne of ideas articulated by a group of more than 100 farmers, researchers, agencies and grower groups. The STAR (Saving Tomorrow’s Agricultural Resources) program assigns points for soil health practices. Farmers and ranchers rate themselves.
“This is a great way for farmers to show what they’re doing and to be proud of the process,” says Cindy Lair, conservation program manager for the agency.
A companion program, STAR Plus, expands the same concept through conservation districts and similar entities. More than 130 individual producers have signed up through STAR Plus.
Regenerative agriculture is not just a topic in rural Colorado in the land of big and even bigger farms. It’s also the central focus of Amanda Weaver’s 13-acre farm called Five Fridges, sandwiched between multi-family housing developments in the Denver metro area’s Wheat Ridge. An economic geographer by training, she now teaches classes about agriculture at the University of Colorado-Denver and, since 2011, farms.
On Five Fridges, Weaver has partners who grow vegetables for local consumption while she raises chickens and operates a goat dairy. Animals are a key component of her operation, which she readily admits is essentially a laboratory for her thinking about regenerative agriculture. The animals add nutrients to the soil; she even sells chicken and goat manure to nearby growers who don’t have the benefit of livestock. As in southeastern Colorado, she emphasizes balance. One of those balances has to do with carrying capacity. One year’s maximum production can come at the expense of long-term benefits. Weaver’s farmland is protected in perpetuity through a conservation easement, managed by Colorado Open Lands, so the long-term benefits and effects of her operation make a difference. In this way, and perhaps more, Weaver and Heckman see agriculture in much the same way. Farming must be seen as a multi-year proposition.
On the Western Slope, soil health restoration is being tested in an experiment on sagebrush-dominated rangelands south of Montrose. Ken Holsinger, an ecologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, says the intent is to restore diversity to the lands and improve the water-holding capacity of the soil.
Holsinger says the federal land was likely deteriorated by improper livestock grazing, particularly prior to adoption of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, but may well have continued until the 1970s prior to implementing modern grazing practices.
This experiment consists of a pair of one-acre plots that have lost their topsoil and have become dominated by sagebrush and invasive vegetation. Such lands produce 200 to 300 pounds of forage per acre but should be producing 800 to 1,000 pounds per acre of native grasses. The soil will be amended with nutrients to restart the carbon cycle. Afterward, 50% of the sagebrush will be removed.
“We are looking at restarting the carbon cycle and ultimately holding more water in the soil profile,”
says Holsinger. “It’s all about rebuilding the diversity in the soil and plant forms.”
One way this enhanced water-holding capacity of restored soils will matter is by preventing the monsoonal rains that western Colorado typically gets in summer from washing soil into creeks and rivers, muddying the water. If the experiment proves successful, then the task will be to cost-effectively scale it up, ideally to the watershed level.
Holsinger hopes the concepts, if proven effective and cost effective at scale, can be employed across other deteriorated rangelands in Colorado.
Back in Silt, at the site of Spring Born, Charles Barr, the company’s owner, got serious about building a greenhouse in 2019. He liked the idea of innovating in agriculture. “I liked the idea of continuous production, I liked the idea of resource conservation, and I liked the idea of moving production closer to consumption.”
The technology is not hydroponic. Sunlight and soil remain critical inputs, along with water. The same technology can be used to grow broccoli, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables—or, for that matter, hay.
Innovation can be challenging, though. Barr’s first major challenge was getting local approval. Barr wanted to build the greenhouse at a geothermal site, but his chosen county put him off. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, his financier, promised to loan money for something similar, as long as it was in Colorado. Garfield County, where Silt is located, was one of three counties in Colorado that said yes, he’d get easy approval. Operations began in August 2021.
In far western Colorado, Richard and Mandy Massey have also been innovating. After building a new metal-sided barn near Gateway, southwest of Grand Junction, they have been growing wheat and barley inside in a hydroponic operation as a supplement for their cattle. Their investment was triggered by the drought of 2018. They still need water, but less of it.
Together, their stories speak to the need for innovation. “That will be the model going forward for all of these agricultural areas,” says Barr. “They have to find new sources of revenue, they have to find new ways of doing business, and they have to find new ways to conserve water.”
Allen Best grew up in eastern Colorado, where both sets of grandparents were farmers. His grandfather’s tools were simple: canvas tarps for creating dams in his irrigation ditches and shovels for breaching them. Years later, visiting that farm of childhood memories, he was shocked by the transformation. All those irrigation ditches? Gone – replaced by a center pivot sprinkler. Now, those pivots can be controlled from cell phones. No getting out of bed at 2 a.m. Best writes about the energy transition in Colorado and beyond at BigPivots.com.