Texas farmers using smartphones to manage drought

(CBS News) AMARILLO, Texas - The panhandle of Texas is being hit by its second year of debilitating drought, which is draining the Ogallala aquifer - critical to the area's crops - at historic rates. But in true Texas fashion, panhandle farmers are pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and finding ways to keep the corn growing and extend the life of the aquifer.

The area around Amarillo, Texas, smells like cows, and that is because in this part of the Texas panhandle cattle are big business, and so is the corn grown to feed them.

"Our crops look good" says Harold Grall, who has 7,800 acres of corn in Dumas, a small dusty town of 14,000 people and hundreds of thousands of cows.

Grall's good-looking crops are amazing because the only way they can grow corn here in the arid high plains is from wells tapping into the massive Ogallala aquifer. However, after two years of crippling drought, the critical water source has seen its most significant drop in 25 years. Near Grall's farm, they've recorded a 14-foot drop since the drought began.

Without a change in farming practices, researches believe the aquifer will tap out and farming as they know it will end. The water underground could be described as the region's lifeblood, so locals know what will happen if it goes away.

"We won't be able to farm," Grall says, adding his kids may not may able to farm like he has.

So Grall is participating in a Texas AgriLife project, which is educating farmers on how to cut back on their water use so they can all extend the life of the aquifer.

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"We're looking pretty good here this year, don't you think?" Leon News asks Grall.

News is a sprightly 78-year-old irrigation scientist whose baseball cap is almost bigger than he his. After 40 years with Texas A&M, he now helps the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District get the word out. He talks with a heavy twang, but it's his knowledge and success that carries the biggest weight.

"We have cut water usage by 50 percent with better irrigation," News says, his smile tipping up higher on one side. He has mentored Grall over the last three years and they have figured out how to save 30 million gallons of water just in one 120-acre field.

Grall, standing deep in the middle of a forest of 7-foot corn stocks, shows how they "used to do" irrigation from a drop line by spraying water in a huge arc over the tops of the corn.

"Just leaves you open for more evaporation," Grall says.

Now, lines hang a few feet above the pale dusty ground slowly pouring water onto the base of the crops, turning the earth into a thick chestnut mud as it sinks toward the roots.

While Grall won't say whether they can save the aquifier, he believes "we can get further down the road."

Sensors in Grall's soil measure the moisture and send reports back to his computer in the stately, air-conditioned offices of the successful corn farmer. From his desk he can communicate with the remote controls on his irrigation equipment and control how much water he's using on specific fields. He now has advanced irrigation like this on 6,800 acres and, along with utilizing newly developed drought resistant corn, he's going to have a bumper crop this year.

"It's helping us conserve water by allowing us an irrigation schedule. In the past we applied more water than we needed to, so we're able to spread our water out over more acres of corn," Grall says.

At $20 per field in start-up cost, he says the savings far outweigh the initial outlay.

"This is a great management tool!" Grall exclaims while holding up his Blackberry in the middle of his corn field. He can get individual reports right then and there and adjust what he needs to on his equipment.

"It's helped but made it more stressful. You never get away from it," Grall says, perhaps sounding not unlike a trader on Wall Street thousands of miles and a world away.

Improved irrigation means they can continue to grow the corn that helps feed their cattle. One quarter of the nation's beef comes from the region.

News says he knows something many of the young farmers don't.

"We know we can always improve the way we use water and stretch the aquifer," News says.

The elderly irrigation scientist is even embracing the new era of smartphones, exclaiming: "It's the thing to do!"

  • Karen Brown

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