U.S. Water News Online
ULYSSES, Kan. -- Cotton might soak up a lot of water once
it's turned into a bath towel, but as a crop it's not as thirsty as
That makes it an increasingly attractive alternative for southwest
Kansas farmers looking to conserve the groundwater in the Ogallala
Aquifer -- farmers such as Jay Garetson of Copeland.
Garetson put some of his family's corn acreage to cotton two years
ago and plans to continue -- and expand -- that practice.
``We were looking for an alternative crop that had the same or
better economic viability of corn but uses less water,'' Garetson
told irrigators at the Southwest Kansas Irrigation Association annual
meeting last week. ``We knew there would be a point where we couldn't
use the amount of water it was taking to produce corn.''
Garetson said on his irrigated fields, it took about 18 inches of
water to produce a 200-bushel corn crop. He used half of that on his
Experts say the future of the Ogallala and the economies that
sprang from it depend on conservation and careful planning to slow
the rate of depletion. In today's dollars, the total economic effect
on southwest Kansas from irrigation is estimated at more than $188
But as the water table dropped, some producers were looking for
``That's the primary thing that drew cotton production to this
area,'' Garetson said. ``It was the declining aquifer. And the water
savings we will obtain in cotton production allows us to continue to
Cotton production has increased in southwest Kansas and the state,
according to the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service. More than
60,000 acres of cotton were planted this year, up 69 percent from the
That acreage produced more than 76,000 bales, of which around
30,000 were ginned at the Northwest Cotton Growers Co-Op Gin at
Moscow, a cooperative in which Garetson is an investor.
Two years ago, Garetson, who farms with his brother, Jarvis, and
father, Jesse, planted 40 acres of cotton as an experiment. This
year, the family plans to plant half their acreage to cotton and the
other to corn on a rotation basis.
Research on the crop is limited, he said, but so far, the Garetson
family has seen benefits.
The cotton/corn rotation helps eliminate corn root worm problems,
and the cotton crop is able to use leftover nitrogen from the
previous corn production. Compared to other states, Kansas has a
shorter growing season and the area is too cold for insects, such as
the boll weevil, although other insects and disease have been
Although it costs more to harvest cotton, the net returns are $100
to $120 an acre more than corn, Garetson said. Other economic
benefits include selling the seed to southwest Kansas dairies and
Although an easy crop to grow, it's different than growing corn,
he said, something area farmers have been growing for decades.
Cotton may be an option, said Kirk Heger, the irrigation group's
``Every farmer is looking for ways to conserve,'' Heger said.
``Cotton seems to be an alternative crop that can generate about the
same net revenue as corn and take less water, and the acreage keeps
increasing. We are going to have to start conserving water before we
are faced with a bad situation.''
For Garetson, growing cotton was the best idea the family
operation has had since he and his brother came back to farm 10 years
ago. This year, the farm averaged between 850 to 1,200 tons an acre.
``The gross returns are greater or the same as corn production,''
he said. ``And obviously the No. 1 issue is preserving our natural
resources. That includes the decline of the aquifer.''
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