150 Years Of Water Management In Eastern Nebraska

Ron Bowman’s family has been farming the Nebraska plains for nearly 150 years.

Phil (left) and Ron (right) stand in one of Ron's cornfields

The original homestead patent from 1865 hangs prominently in the office. Ron himself, together with his cousin Phillip Meyer, has been growing corn, soybeans and pumpkins for 41 years. What’s more, Ron manages 1000 head of cattle. That’s a lot of “Nebraska beef”, as the local slogan goes. During the past four decades, Ron and Phil have seen just about everything: drought, wind, flood, cold, heat, booms and busts. But in Eastern Nebraska, one topic seems to dominate day-to-day life: water.

The town of Hooper (pronounced: huh-per) sits just to the south of Logan Creek, a windy tributary that flows south into the much larger Platte River. It is a landscape shaped by river basins and railroads. “Water is so precious around here. Everyone talks about it: how much is needed, what’s in it, where it’s going,” Ron tells me as he stands next to one of his irrigation pumps. “But you know, Logan Creek is one of the only waterways in Nebraska whose flow has consistently gone up over the past thirty years. We must be doing something right.”

That means continuing to invest in new water management technologies and practices. His latest project, together with the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension office, is to take systematic readings of the soil moisture in his fields. For this, he inserts tools called tensiometers into representative spots at depths of 12, 24 and 36 inches (30, 61, 91 cm). As the name might suggest, tensiometers measure soil water tension, basically the effort needed by a crop root to extract water from the soil. The drier the soil, the greater the required effort. Ron selects the test locations neither too high nor too low.

It's a real science to get the right amount of water.

Another test location sits near the edge of a long, skinny cornfield that winds along the side of a large hill. Ron and Phil are puzzled by the readings. The meter is showing “0”. That either means the meter isn’t working correctly or that, in fact, at a depth of only 12 inches, water is freely available to the roots of his corn crop. “Could the ground really be that moist?” Ron asks himself with a wipe of his chin. Phil answers, “That’s not impossible.” They might not show it, but if this continues, it would be a pleasant surprise indeed. “This little practice has helped me save lots of time, energy and money,” he confirms.

“If we hadn’t taken these readings, I would probably be irrigating right now and getting nothing for it. Now I have the knowledge I need, so that I only irrigate when and where it’s needed.” In a place where irrigation costs can run into six figures, Ron can care for the land and manage his resources while, at the same time, make a positive impact on his bottom line. That, too, is not impossible.

That was back in June, when the 2012 North American Drought was only starting to take shape. Now seven months later, I talked to Ron again. He reported some good and some not-so-good news.

“Our irrigated yields this fall were some of the best ever on our farm,” Ron wrote in an email. “The dry land corn was about 50 to 60 % of the past year’s yield. Where we ran short on irrigation water late in the year, the yields were down also. We had well problems north of our place and couldn’t pump for about 2 to 3 weeks in August. It was a very long summer of irrigating, and we had the highest fuel bills in my lifetime.” 

We’ll keep in touch with Ron and Phil to see what the future brings. One thing’s for sure: it will be full of challenges.