Reducing the Water Footprint

Photo of Dr. West holding last years alfalfa Dr. West grabs the previous year’s alfalfa, while the new forage grows in beneath it. Alfalfa is a perennial, high-quality and resilient grass that is full of nutrients.

A West Texas farmer sits on the bed of his Ford truck, watching his cattle graze the land. His feeder steers are in the distance pulling the last of the forage out of the barren ground. The farmer shakes his head at how thin his stock looks because the Ogallala Aquifer is too low to sustain the forage. He is worried about breaking even on the steers, let alone being profitable enough to make his yearly return. 

Luckily researchers at Texas Tech University have been studying and testing different ways to reduce the water footprint to save the Ogallala Aquifer. The water footprint refers to how much water it takes to produce a pound of beef. Charles West, Ph.D., professor and Thornton Distinguished Chair in Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech, has been researching forage crops and pastures for many years. Also, West is director of the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources Water Center and provides administrative leadership to the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation. 

“This is what we do research for,” West said. “We see something that looks interesting and could be very important.” 

West has been researching forage crops and pastures for 43 years, including 28 years at the University of Arkansas. West said Texas Tech has excellent facilities to do field research on forage grazing systems. The overarching goal of their research is to reduce the water footprint used on cattle grazing grass without negatively affecting the rate of gain of the cattle.

Photo of WW-B Dahl Seeds
WW-B Dahl Bluestem is a high-quality, resilient grass and has a good drought tolerance. It is a high-yielding grass that has low fertility requirements.

Focused on Forage

West is currently focusing his research efforts on cattle grazing on Old-World Bluestem called WW-B Dahl Bluestem and a legume Alfalfa. Both are perennial plants that are resilient and tolerate to weather, which makes them a prime choice for the dry West Texas climate. These forages are high-quality to ensure cattle ingest their proper nutrients. 

West said the research is designed to have a few pastures with only WW-B Dahl and a few pastures with WW-B Dahl and Alfalfa at high and low densities. These pastures are irrigated with a drip irrigation system and center pivot irrigation. 

Kathryn Radicke, a Texas Tech plant and soil science research graduate student, works closely with West on this project. Radicke said these grasses can do extremely well without irrigation for farmers who cannot irrigate their pastures.  

“Rather than moving cattle through pastures with a bunch of different types of forage, it is something more applicable to the farmers in this area,” Radicke said. 

For their research, the cattle breeds used for the research are typically Purebred Angus or a Simmental Angus cross and graze the pastures from June to the beginning of October. West said the cattle are in the stocker stage meaning weaned calves to before they are sent to a feedlot.

West said the reason for using Angus or Angus-cross cattle is because they handle the low humid climate better, and the meat quality is typically the best. He said they want the cattle to be as uniform as possible. The cattle should look, act, and digest the grass the same way. This ensures the cattle are a constant. 

“The differences in their productivity can be related to the differences that we impose on the pasture rather than differences from animal variation,” West said. “In our research, our enemy is biological variation.”  

Keeping the cattle as uniform as possible and letting them graze the two different types of pastures will show any differences in the cattle’s rate of gain as a result of the grass rather than genetics, West said. Beyond the grass and the cattle, water is the next important component of West’s research. 

A Conclusion Worth Ruminating

The water footprint calculated is how much water it takes to keep the WW-B Dahl and Alfalfa healthy and keep cattle gains high. West said that Alfalfa is easy to digest so it helps increase weight gain and reduce the amount of water it takes to produce a pound of meat.

 “Keep doing what we are doing. We are lowering the footprint and things will change.” 

Charles West

West and Radicke found WW-B Dahl and Alfalfa are a good mix and could be beneficial to South Plains cattle producers. Radicke said this is an inexpensive process for producers to increase their gains and help preserve the Ogallala Aquifer.  

Photo of Dr. West checking the alfalfa
Dr. West checks the pasture to see the quality of the new forages growing back in. The alfalfa turns green typically when the potential for a spring frost has passed.

A few producers have recently transitioned into this way of grazing and others have been forced into it. West said producers who adapt to this process are concerned about water consumption on their farms or have trouble with growing grasses to increase cattle gains.

“You can grow this resilient grass called WW-B Dahl and grow Alfalfa with it and it bumps up your gains,” West said. 

West said reducing the water used and increasing gains translates into money. 

After many successful years researching forage, West will retire in August of 2020. His advice to other researchers and farmers is to continue advancing and finding advancements for agriculture. 

 “Keep doing what we are doing,” West said. “We are lowering the footprint and things will change.”