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Utah farmers forced to slash crops as drought struggles set in

Posted at 11:06 PM, May 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-05 01:08:06-04

JUAB COUNTY, Utah — Utah farmers and ranchers are already feeling the effects of the extreme drought conditions, well before the summer harvest. It's causing many to slash the number of crops they grow, as water managers make tough decisions on how much water farms can use, and where it goes.

On ranchland just west of Nephi, cows stood in a line, surrounded on each side by fencing. At the front of the line, a man opened a gate and a cow walked into a red metal cattle chute. The chute closed, holding the cow in place.

Wayne Jarrett tagged the cow's ear with an insect repellent tab, while another man gave the cow a shot to vaccinate it. They opened the chute, and the cow went on it's way.

They repeated the process for each of the couple dozen, in an effort to boost the herd's health and keep them protected against sickness and disease.

Jarrett is worried about his cows.

"It's made some restless nights," he said, of the problem weighing on his mind.

He's anxious about how he's going to be able to feed them all through winter.

"These cows, I'm really nervous to take them out on the range because it's just not coming. I'm afraid we're going to be short," he explained.

Short. Short on grass to graze on. Short on feed and corn. All because Utah is short on water.

READ: Now is not the time to water the lawn, state urges

Jarrett drove his pickup truck 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 water pulls from five different irrigation wells plus runoff from nearby Mt. Nebo.

The pivot systematically sprayed water out onto the young plants. Jarrett explained that his pivots have the technology to disseminate the water based on what's efficient and conserves 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 spin out of the sprinkler heads are large instead of small, to allow for more absorption into the ground.

A motor moves the wheels of the pivot when one area has been watered enough, to another area that needs more water.

Jarrett said he's only running three pivots on four well lines right now, instead of his normal six pivots instead of 16 or 16 well lines.

Runoff from Mt. Nebo is scarce, he indicated, saying that the usual 100 or 120 feet-per-second is a measly 8.5 feet-per-second.

"We're actually thinking about which fields not to water this year and just let them burn up, because we don't have enough water to get over the crops," he said.

Jarrett can only use about 40 percent of the water he normally uses this time of year, he said. Less water available means he must grow less crops. For example, instead of growing 120 acres corn, Jarrett said he's only farming corn on 25 acres.

He also adjusted the crops he's growing, based on potential profit. Alfalfa makes the most profit, so Jarrett explained he had to focus more on that.

"It's better to water half the farm right, than the whole farm halfway," Jarrett said. "You are better off to raise better crops on half it, than a poor job on the whole thing."

Everyone Jarrett knows is in the same boat.

"It causes losses to producers, they impact food security, impacts consumers. So it's something we've been watching very closely," said Caroline Hargraves, public information specialist with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF).

She said the effects of the drought will cascade all the way down, as farmers grow less this year. To help during tough years like this one, she talked about how UDAF offers a low-interest agriculture resource development loan.

Hargraves said those loans help producers decrease water usage while increasing yield. The UDAF Conservation Division Water Optimization Program offers grants as well.

"Every little bit that you can do helps tremendously, like impact over time," she said.

Jarrett explained he invested in a system years ago that conserves water. That still isn't helping the fact that he can't grow as much as usual. He said he's not expecting to turn any profit this year.

He will focus on growing what he can and keeping his cows fed.

It's all Jarrett can do to help his third-generation family farm survive.

"I guess you do what anybody else does when there's no money there," he said. "You just do the best you can. But, it's hard."