Sustainable Agroecosystems

Sustainable Agroecosystems

Water Conservation on the High Plains

Sustainable Agroecosystems

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According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the definition of agroecosystems is a "system where communities of plants, microbes and animals inhabiting farmed land, pastures, grasslands or rangelands, interact with each other and their physical environment." In the late 1990s, a committed and dedicated team of researchers from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, TX took one of the first steps to begin exploring a sustainable agroecosystems approach to implement agricultural production alternatives in the south Texas High Plains.

The Texas High Plains serves as a model region when studying factors affecting agricultural sustainability with respect to water, soil, nutrients, energy, and community stability. The importance of crops, forages, and livestock to the Texas High Plains has highlighted the need to develop systems that enhance profitability, improve conservation of soil and water resources, and expand marketing opportunities for a more sustainable agricultural system. The impetus for this research is the declining supply of groundwater from the Ogallala Aquifer used in large scale, row-crop farming, and therefore the need for systems that use less water while building soil quality and maintaining profitability.

The Texas Tech University Texas Coalition for Sustainable Integrated Systems (TeCSIS) effort focuses on the use of grazing systems with beef cattle that, when integrated into farming systems involving annual crops, can reduce inputs of irrigation water, fertilizers, and pesticides, while building up soil organic matter and microbial diversity. Research within these systems is providing information on energy balance, greenhouse gas emissions, carbon cycling, soil organic carbon fractions, soil compaction, soil quality, carbon cycling through the grazing animals, shifts in botanical composition within the systems, effects of cover crops on allelopathic effects on the following target crops, potential variation in alfalfa varieties to persist and yield under limited irrigation, effects of different legume species or nitrogen fertilization under limited irrigation on carbon and nitrogen in soils and plants, as well as yield and forage quality, and other vital information. The premise is that there are novel methods of managing forages which are as climate-resilient as native grasslands, but more economically productive, and which entail user-friendly technologies for monitoring use of water and making more informed economic decisions.

Sustainable Crop/Livestock Systems in the Texas High Plains: Phase I

Cattle grazing on OWB

Crop and livestock production in the Texas High Plains generates over $8.7 billion in annual revenues but has depended on irrigation with water from the Ogallala Aquifer. Once considered to be an inexhaustible resource, the aquifer is now known to be declining at a rate that has already left many wells dry and crop production increasingly vulnerable. The importance of crops, forages, and livestock to the Texas High Plains highlights the need to develop systems that enhance profitability, improve conservation of soil and water resources, and expand marketing opportunities for a more sustainable agricultural system.

Sustainable Crop/Livestock Systems in the Texas High Plains: Phase II

Cattle grazing on non-irrigated dryland system.

Initial Southern SARE-funded research from Texas Tech University from 1997-2004 found that grazing stocker steers on perennial old world bluestem pastures and small grains in rotation with cotton required 25 percent less irrigation water and 40 percent less nitrogen fertilizer, and resulted in higher net cash returns/acre than growing cotton in monoculture. In the Southern SARE-funded project (LS02-131), “Forage and Livestock Systems for Sustainable High Plains Agriculture,” research continued into Phase II with the addition of dryland grazing systems and deficit-irrigated forage-livestock grazing systems.

Sustainable Crop/Livestock Systems in the Texas High Plains: Phase III

Forage finishing system

Initial Southern SARE-funded research from Texas Tech University from 1997-2004 explored grazing stocker steers on perennial old world bluestem pastures and small grains in rotation with cotton. The project continued several years later with the addition of dryland systems and deficit-irrigated forage-livestock systems. These systems continue to remain relevant. In the Southern SARE-fundedproject (LS08-202), “Crop-Livestock Systems for Sustainable High Plains Agriculture,” the project continued into Phase III with system modifications and revisions to target greater water savings and profitability, and address emerging issues.

Diversifying in the Texas High Plains: Examples of agroecosystems models

Crops and Livestock collage

The following system configurations are examples of the diversified crop/livestock production practices that have been studied across the Texas High Plains since 1997. These systems have been tested against cotton monoculture –a subsurface drip-irrigated system farmed with conventional cultural practices recommended for the High Plains region.

Agroecosystems Economics in the Texas High Plains: A 10-year analysis, 1999-2008

Crops and Livestock collage

Based on 10 years of Texas Tech University research, integrated cotton-forage-beef cattle systems are just as profitable as cotton monoculture systems. But there’s more. Integrated crop-livestock systems use less irrigation water, are more energy efficient, preserve soils by reducing wind erosion, and have a lower economic risk related to specific-loss events, such as a drought.

Agroecosystems Research in the Texas High Plains: Graduate student studies

Cattle grazing

Texas Tech University graduate students play an integral role in furthering research of forage-based crop/livestock systems to better manage water, improve production efficiency, and maximize profitability across the Texas High Plains. Since 1997, over two dozen Master’s, PhD, and visiting students have conducted research and published articles related to sustainable integrated systems research in the Texas High Plains. The following are examples of current studies by Texas Tech University graduate students.

Published by the Southern Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Southern SARE operates under cooperative agreements with the University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to offer competitive grants to advance sustainable agriculture in America's Southern region. This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, through Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, under sub-award numbers: LS97-082, LS02-131, LS08-202, LS10-229, LS11-238, LS14-261, LS17-286, GS02-012, GS07-056, GS15-152 and GS18-196. USDA is an equal opportunity employer and service provider. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.