Utah farmers forced to cut crops as drought sets in
JUAB COUNTY, Utah – Farmers and ranchers in Utah are already feeling the effects of extreme drought, long before the summer harvest. This causes a lot of people to cut back on the number of crops they grow, as water managers make tough decisions about how much water farms can use and where to go.
On the ranches just west of Nephi, the cows stood in a line, surrounded on either side by fences. At the front of the line, a man opened a door and a cow entered a red metal cattle cage. The chute closed, holding the cow in place.
Wayne Jarrett marked the cow’s ear with an insect tab, while another man gave him a chance to vaccinate her. They opened the chute and the cow continued on her way.
They repeated the process for each of the two dozen, with the goal of improving the health of the herd and protecting it from disease and illness.
Jarrett is worried about his cows.
“It made some restless nights,” he said, of the problem hanging over his mind.
He can’t wait to find out how he can feed them through the winter.
“These cows, I’m really nervous to take them to the field because that just doesn’t happen. I’m afraid we’re small,” he explained.
Short. Lack of grass to graze. Lack of food and corn. All because Utah is running out of water.
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Jarrett drove his van down the road to another field, where alfalfa is starting to grow. He opened a gate to the field next to the base of the pivot, where he said the water draws from five different irrigation wells plus runoff from the nearby mount. Nebo.
The pivot systematically sprays water on the young plants. Jarrett explained that his pivots have the technology to disperse water depending on what is efficient and saves the most water. The sprinkler heads hover low above the plants, so the water doesn’t evaporate or blow away in the wind. The droplets that come out of the sprinkler heads are large instead of small, to allow greater absorption into the soil.
A motor moves the pivot wheels when an area has had enough water, to another area that needs more water.
Jarrett said he currently only performs three pivots on four well lines, instead of his normal six pivots instead of 16 or 16 well lines.
Runoff from Mt. Nebo is rare, he said, saying the usual 100 or 120 feet per second is a paltry 8.5 feet per second.
“We’re actually thinking about which fields not to water this year and we’re just letting them burn because we don’t have enough water to cover the crops,” he said.
Jarrett can only use about 40% of the water he normally uses at this time of year, he said. Less water available means he has to grow fewer crops. For example, instead of growing 120 acres of corn, Jarrett said he only grows corn on 25 acres.
He also adjusted the crops he grows, based on potential profit. Alfalfa is the most profitable, so Jarrett explained that he needs to focus more on that.
“It’s better to water half the farm on the right, than the whole farm halfway,” Jarrett said. “You’d better produce a better crop on half, than a bad job on the whole.”
Everyone Jarrett knows is in the same boat.
“It results in losses for producers, they have an impact on food safety, an impact on consumers. So this is something that we are monitoring very closely,” said Caroline Hargraves, public information specialist at Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF).
She said the effects of the drought will ripple the entire length as farmers will grow less this year. To help during difficult years like this, she explained how the UDAF offers a low interest rate agricultural resource development loan.
Hargraves said the loans help producers reduce their water consumption while increasing yields. The UDAF Conservation Division’s water optimization program also offers grants.
“Every little thing you can do helps a lot, like an impact over time,” she said.
Jarrett explained that he invested in a system years ago that conserves water. It still doesn’t help the fact that he can’t grow as tall as usual. He said he didn’t expect to turn a profit this year.
He will focus on growing what he can and feeding his cows.
That’s all Jarrett can do to help his third generation family farm survive.
“I guess you do what anyone else does when there’s no money out there,” he says. “You’re just doing your best. But, it’s hard.”