Reducing Agriculture’s Impact On Water - Food Dialogues

Reducing Agriculture’s Impact on Water

Focus on Improvement

USFRA farmer and rancher affiliates – and our industry partners – understand the importance of reducing agriculture’s impact on water. Over the past few decades, farmers and ranchers have continuously worked to find innovative solutions to improve their impact on water.  An increasing number of farmers and ranchers are doing more to reuse materials on the farm, minimize waste and reduce the need to bring in energy from outside sources.

Water Use and Precision

Water is vital because all living things – plants and animals – need water to grow and thrive.  In the United States, approximately 39 percent of fresh water is used for irrigating crops.

Farmers work to use the most efficient methods to use irrigation water more precisely. Extensive research has helped farmers who irrigate reduce water usage by customizing application to soil and seed needs, resulting in less wasted water.  The way crops are watered has changed over the years with updated methods and techniques, like drip tape irrigation for vegetable and fruit farmers in which irrigation pipes with holes are laid along the ground reducing evaporation and using less water than flood irrigation.

Now more than ever, farmers are working to adapt irrigation schedules to current environmental conditions. Through new research and technologies, farmers now apply water at the precise time that the plant best utilizes moisture, thus avoiding overwatering.

Many farmers are adopting new technologies that allow them to pull local weather data and install water sensors in fields. These sustainable technologies are helping farmers know not only when it’s time to irrigate but also exactly how much water should be applied, thus reducing water use.

Seeds and Seed Breeding

Seed innovations have reduced the amount of water needed over time.  Both conventional breeding and genetic modification have made crops less water dependent. While seed-supply companies are still striving to find even greater drought tolerance, many have released products that perform well in water-limited environments.

Water Quality

There’s a great deal of discussion about the impact agriculture has on water quality. As it relates to farm animals, the question is typically about manure management while on the crop side, it’s about application of protection products and fertilizers.

Farm Animals

Many farms today are capturing and reusing the water used in raising animals and growing crops. They’re creating closed loop systems by using animal manure as fertilizer on crops. On some farms this is a self-contained cycle while on others it represents an arrangement between crop farmers and animal ranchers.

Farm animal manure is contained in a number of ways, including lined lagoons, above ground storage, anaerobic digesters (a system that holds manure to create electricity), composting piles and other storage methods, which are outlined and mandated according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state health agencies in which the farm or ranch is located. Farmers and ranchers invest a great deal of money into manure management systems to stay compliant with state and EPA regulations.

The manure collected by farmers and ranchers that is applied at the appropriate rate is a great organic fertilizer, which has reduced some dependence on synthetic fertilizers, helping to offset greenhouse emissions contributed by synthetic fertilizers. In addition to providing valuable nutrients to help crops grow, animal manure helps to build the organic content of the soil and improves the moisture-holding capacity of soil.

The Water Quality Assessment Database compiled by state environmental regulatory agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists sources of surface-water impairments of the nation’s rivers, streams and lakes. It showed that farm animal agriculture ranks low as a potential source of impact. In Iowa, the state that raises the most hogs, farm animal production ranks last as a probable source of impairment for streams and rivers and is not a source for contamination of lakes, ponds and reservoirs.

Crop Protection

Water quality can be impacted by fertilizers and crop protection products. According to BASF, 50 to 90 percent of pesticide pollution in ground and surface water comes from point pollution sources in agriculture.

Farmers have greatly reduced the environmental impact on water quality with help from Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and improved genetic traits within crops, the use of pesticides and fertilizers has been greatly refined and managed with excellent precision. Today, these tools are applied at the right time, right place and right amount, thus producing more with less.

While farmers and ranchers and their partners have made great strides thus far, the need to continue to find methods to improve water use and quality is still extremely critical – 2015’s drought has made this very clear.  Innovation and research is essential to continue improving practices and protecting the environment.