Dryland farming may not be a viable option

By Tony Farkas

Since the High Plains’ economy is based on agriculture, and since water for crops and livestock may soon be in short supply, one solution seems obvious: Farmers should stop irrigating and raise dryland crops.
But that won’t work, most agricultural experts agree.
“I don’t see that happening, not in my lifetime,” said Curry County Ag Extension Agent Stan Jones.
“Water’s the major player in everything. Farmers bought their land irrigated, and if it goes to dryland, it will have a lot of impact on their financial stability.”
Jeff Bader, former ag extension agent for Quay County, said there would be no farming in that area if only dryland farming were allowed; the idea was tried in the area in the early 1900s, but was not successful.
Roosevelt County Agriculture Extension Agent Floyd McAlister said if only dryland farming had been used in 2000, there would have been virtually no income for the county, Dryland crops that year were a total miss.
“The wheat crop was very poor; there were no summer crops that year at all,” he said. “Wheat was only planted after rains in October.”
Jones said people can and do make a living at dryland farming, but they need a lot of land; McAlister said one irrigated acre will produce as much crop as several acres farmed dryland.
Certain crops do grow well dryland, such as grain sorghum and wheat, but agents agree those crops are not enough to keep farms going, as those types of crops generally fetch less at market.
In Roosevelt, Curry and Quay counties, there are about twice as many acres for dryland farming than for irrigated: 833,500 acres dryland, 421,360 irrigated, according to 1996 statistics compiled by the State Engineer’s Office and New Mexico State University.
Wheat production in 2001 for the three counties generated about 2.6 million bushels on 56,000 acres of irrigated cropland and 3.4 million bushels on 148,500 acres of dryland farms, according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service.
Essentially, growers produced more crop on less land by irrigating; and the more land irrigated, the more crop and more money at harvest time. It also means farmers have less money tied up in land.
Dryland has another limitation: the vagaries of weather. Statistics show the area garners 15 to 18 inches of precipitation annually.
“In dryland farming, primarily grain sorghum and wheat will grow well, but not enough to keep farms going, especially in drought,” Jones said. “It’s pretty much hit-and-miss in dryland farming; everything has got to be right, and even dryland crops need water.”
McAlister said Roosevelt County farmers grow milo, cotton and wheat on dryland acreage, and all do well. Even so, the crops have specific water needs, as does any crop.
“Peanuts cannot successfully be grown dryland here, as well as alfalfa,” he said. “We just don’t get the kind of rain that’s needed; it would be a whole different world agriculturally if not for the water.”
Hoyt Pattison, a former state representative and a dryland farmer in Curry County, said the economy of the area would take a hit if it were strictly dryland farming.
“The economy will continue, but with less input from the agriculture community,” he said. “Clovis has more than just its agriculture base; it has Cannon Air Force Base and the railroad, among others.”
Pattison also said dryland farming is less expensive, but does not have the crop yields of irrigated farms. Dryland farming also takes more land to create a yield, but that expense is offset by the lack of costs to run irrigation, particularly $5,000 to $6,000 a month in electricity costs necessary to run the pumps.
“It’s less expensive to have an economic impact,” he said, “but with (market) prices the way they are, it’s tough to make it anyway, dryland or irrigated.”