Down to the Last Drop

Brandon and Brogan Patschke pose together in a wheat field Brandon Patschke (left) and his son Brogan (right) stand side by side, representing the generational calling of the agricultural industry.

The pivot control panel door swung open in the wind, struggling on its rusted hinges. Brandon Patschke caught the flying door and held it open for his son who stood beside him.   

“This pressure gauge alerts us directly to the problem,” Patschke said patiently, as his son Brogan eagerly nodded beside him. Sure enough, there was a leak.   

This was an average Monday afternoon for Patschke and his son on their farm in Lubbock County. As a fifth-generation farmer, Patschke teaches his son and daughters the ins and outs of his operation just as his father taught him all those years ago.   

“We’re just trying to do the best job as stewards for the land as we can,” Patschke said.  

 To instill a love for the land and find value in this line of work, he and his wife, Elyse, know their children will have to choose this path for themselves one day.   

Yet with declining access to water, he fears the decision could have already been made.   

Vanishing Water

Patschke’s grandparents moved from Austin to the High Plains in 1958 for the increased access to underground irrigation, which was new technology in those days. Since their move, the Patschke family has fought urban development, drought and storms. Despite these threats and the negligible recharge rates in the aquifer below, Patschke’s loyalty and love for this region give him encouragement to weather the unknown.   

The Ogallala Aquifer has been the main source of agricultural and municipal expansion across the High Plains for the last hundred years. Patschke remembers how when he was a young boy, the aquifer fed a semi-arid landscape through years of droughts. Due to its use, farmers today have seen this non-renewable resource slowly recede, producing less water for the high demands asked of it.  

The precious water table, or freshwater saturated thickness, of the Ogallala Aquifer has declined, sparking scientific research conducted to protect this natural resource which so many lives depend on.   

“We’ve lost 50% of the saturated thickness since pre-development, since the 1950s,” said Donna McCallister, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at Texas Tech University. “When we first started irrigating, a quarter probably could have been used more efficiently.” 

Yet while the High Plains region is trying to protect the diminishing natural resource of the Ogallala Aquifer, producers face frequent, devastating droughts over the past few decades. With so much at stake, what can be done?  

Beginning Efforts

There has always been talk of water management on the High Plains. Unlike conservation efforts today, the motivation during the 20th century was to lower costs, both in energy and labor savings.  

Considering this financial predicament, First National Bank of Lubbock printed and distributed a guide in 1965 on irrigation timing and use to increase efficiency for its farming clients.   

One of these clients was Uel Arthur, a World War II veteran and small-town farmer in Ralls, Texas, who passed this guide down to his son, Lloyd. A fifth-generation farmer, Lloyd Author is a product of hard work and pure grit.  

“It’s not just for anybody,” Arthur said. “You’ve got to be thick skinned and as my wife says, you got to have tremendous faith.” 

Caring for the same land his father and brother farmed before him, Arthur continues to cultivate his family’s land through thick and thin. 

Lloyd Arthur
Lloyd Arthur explains his implementation of conservation technology to maximize his water’s efficiency and product yield.

As an early adopter, Arthur has practiced mindful water use on his land for decades in order to best protect his land and resources. As a member of the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation, Arthur has implemented revolutionary technologies that assist him in managing water and collecting data.  

The TAWC is a multi-disciplinary partnership between agricultural producers, universities, government agencies and industries focused on addressing the issues of declining water availability in the Texas High Plains due to the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer.  

McCallister, who serves TAWC in producer relations and records while holding a joint appointment with Texas Tech and Texas A&M AgriLife Research as a research scientist, hopes her work will help farmers like Arthur. 

“What is sustainable for our region is completely unique and unlike anywhere else,” McCallister said.  

Moving Forward

For farmers to continue the life-long commitment to their land, operation and families, they must break even to persevere through whatever Mother Nature throws at them.  

While it starts and ends with water, water scarcity has many factors that must be considered and battled daily. Whether it be unpredictable weather patterns, energy use, fertilizer application to name a few, these all affect how a crop will respond to irrigation.   

“Water conservation is closely connected with environmental sustainability in this region,” said Krishna Jagadish, Ph.D., director and program coordinator for TAWC. “My philosophy is to conserve, that’s how you can actually give something to your kids in a better shape than you got it.”  

In his role, Jagadish works with producers to understand their needs and find solutions for the complex issues they face. He works in research fields where new technologies can be tested for producers to weigh the cost against the possible benefits of implementation. TAWC continues this research to breach the expensive barrier for producers when considering experimental research.  

 “It is then left in the hands of growers to choose that for themselves,” Jagadish said. “How best do we support growers to farm in a way that positively affects the entire future generation of farming?”   

Practices From the Past

Rick Kellison, a fourth-generation rancher and farmer from Lockney, Texas, described how water management has changed since his father farmed before him. As a Texas Tech alumnus with a bachelor’s in animal science and a master’s in ruminant nutrition, Kellison has a deeper understanding of this region and its daily challenges than most.    

Sporting a thick mustache paired with a classic Texan accent, Kellison has the ability to explain complex technologies in a way most people can understand. 

“We can get by without a lot of things, but you can’t go very long without water,” Kellison said. “And it’s when you try to farm in an arid area environment like we do, it becomes your primary limiting factor.” 

Kellison explained how accessing the depths of the Ogallala Aquifer in the 20th century, projected the High Plains into greater production and economic growth than ever before. Water levels were higher at that time, which produced high volumes of freshwater which allowed them to use irrigation practices such as furrow irrigation and high-pressure pivot.  

Wheat in Acuff, TX
Standing water in the Texas High Plains climate leads to precious water being lost due to evaporation.

Furrow irrigation is the practice of flooding rows with water from pipes allowing large amounts of water to absorb into the soil. The large surface area of sitting water in the High Plains climate causes high rates of evaporation.

Patschke remembers furrow irrigating as a young boy on his father’s land. They were warm, sunny days where his job was simply to run in the mud until the water reached the end of the row.   

When energy costs were low and water conservation was not as widely practiced in the 1960s, high pressure pivots were another solution which made irrigation convenient and effective for producers. Kellison said the inefficiency of this method is caused by how the water is dispersed from the pivot.  

Water is pressurized within the pivot and is then shot up into the air before it falls on the soil. When water is lifted into the air within the low humidity climate, water loss in the wind and evaporation occurs. Additionally, inconsistent pressure patterns lead to overapplication when too large an area is watered at one time. 

Practices such as furrow irrigation and high-pressure pivots have been replaced and improved upon to protect every High Plains producer’s best interest: water.   

“It wasn’t that producers had any intention of wasting water,” Kellison said. “We didn’t understand that we were dealing with a limited supply.” 

In With the New

As the TAWC Project Director, Kellison actively works toward implementing the latest technologies and inventions available in precision irrigation.   

There have been great leaps in water efficiency within two specific areas of precision irrigation technology. These are delivery and management technologies.   

Kellison defines delivery technologies as the means to which water is applied to the soil coupled with the means to increase the retention of the water applied.  

One example of these technologies is the use of the FieldNET app. This is a remote irrigation management and scheduling technology which allows a user to control the speed and dispersion of each one of their pivot systems remotely. Arthur, who uses FieldNET, is faced with lost time and water without this technology.  

“We used to set that pivot on an inch of water going around, and when it gets to a turn row, it’s still putting that inch of water out,” Arthur said. “I’m sure my dad would be surprised if he knew I could change the rotation of a pivot or change the amount of water I’m putting out just from my phone.”  

By speeding the irrigation circle up across portions that will not retain the same amount of water as the rest of the circle, Arthur is able to conserve water and retain the soil structure across his field.   

“Then the second type of technology is management technology,” Kellison said. “For example, is there a better time to apply water than other times.” 

Arthur has installed an autonomous pivot which is an example of this technology. This continuous, non-invasive soil-moisture sensor attaches to a pivot and is able to take 300 soil water content readings per rotation without disturbing the soil.  

Lloyd Arthur
Lloyd Arthur demonstrates how his FieldNet system works seamlessly with his pivot from his phone, allowing him to fine tune how, when, and where his water is dispersed.

This sensor allows him to keep records of the times, amounts and effectiveness of the irrigation that he does use. For Arthur, prioritizing data to prove to policy makers and neighbors how devastating drought and water scarcity can be, makes it worth every penny.    

Throughout his time as a farmer and rancher, Kellison has seen the implementation of technology and research in grand ways that have drastically improved water management in farming. As water is used more effectively, Kellison is excited for what the future of water management holds.   

You can’t grow crops from start to finish on irrigation. You’ve got to have some rain.

Brandon Patschke

Many farmers, however, are hesitant to adopt a number of these water management practices. For some, they have been dissuaded by the cost of purchasing and maintaining these methods. Many are unsure of the actual benefit and extent of saving water from implementing these practices.   

 While organizations like TAWC strive to aid farmers in controlling what they can with new technology, each farmer knows what is best for their land.  

Patschke said he understands the necessity for farmers to use water sparingly and as efficiently as possible. Patschke himself has resorted to irrigating fewer acres, watering less and taking out pivots as ways to combat water scarcity. However, making sure that farmers have the freedom to do what is best for their land, without unnecessary oversight, is crucial.   

Patschke was elected in 2022 as district one representative for the High Plains Water Underground Water District. In his position, Patschke works with his state senator and other legislative entities to protect water and land from overreaching policies.  

“My work is to make sure that big government can’t come in here and try to control what we’re doing with our water.” 

The Future of Agriculture

Agriculture is a generational industry made up of neighbors, willing to help each other rain or shine. Kids in agriculture are tasked with hard work from a young age, instilling diligence, patience and dedication. They are given unique opportunities such as raising animals or cultivating crops unlike some peers. These activities teach love and respect for nature, something that has been lost to urban life.   

The Patschkes are raising three children, all who are involved in agriculture. Patschke said his kids are learning skills that will provide a solid foundation for their future career, whether it is in agriculture or not.  

Brandon and Brogan Patschke
Brandon Patschke (left) teaches his son Brogan (right) which gauges within the control panel need to be frequently monitored. Their new drip system allows for precise water application below the soil surface, saving irrigation from evaporation.

“They’ve got to want to do it,” he said. “You can’t hold them to it and make them pursue it. At the end of the day, they have to have the grit to persevere through the hard years.”  

The Patschke family will be seeing their eldest daughter, Aniston, follow in her father’s footsteps as an animal science major at Texas Tech in the fall of 2023. College decisions can be overwhelming and stressful; however, they feel Aniston will be challenged and will find valuable community there for this next stage in her life.   

“You surround yourself with good people,” he said. “And the best people there are, in our opinion, are in the ag school. We hope that’s where her passion will continue to grow.”  

Since its founding in 1925, the Davis College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at Texas Tech has excelled and pushed boundaries in every field. The college’s research in water management not only prepares students for careers in agriculture, but it also supports producers who implement the results.   

Rudy Ritz, Ph.D., an associate professor in agricultural education and a research partner with TAWC, is concerned about the future of water on the High Plains.  

“We can’t stop using water,” Ritz said. “We have to continue to provide food and clothing and be good stewards of the resources that we have been given.”   

Ritz educates and inspires his students in their coursework on pressing local issues. One he feels strongly about for students pursuing an agricultural career in the High Plains is water scarcity and the need for informed water management practices.    

Despite the weight of this problem, Ritz remains optimistic and resilient. He believes there are solutions and answers that have yet to be discovered. It will require hard work and research that Texas Tech is dedicated to resolving water scarcity for the next generation.  

“It’s the next generation’s job to move forward and provide the leadership for the innovation required for this research,” Ritz said.  

Patschke has assumed that leadership responsibility.  

“I want to ensure that there will be land with water for my kids one day,” Patschke said. “You can’t grow crops from start to finish on irrigation. You’ve got to have some rain.”