Cargill, Minneapolis, teamed up with The Nature Conservancy, Arlington County, Va., and Nestlé Purina PetCare Co., St. Louis, Mo., to launch a 3-year water project to improve the sustainability of the beef supply chain. This project is expected to reduce the environmental impact of row crop irrigation in Nebraska and provide a scalable irrigation solution for U.S. farmers.

More than 50% of water used in U.S. beef production is dedicated to irrigating the row crops that become feed for cattle, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Bethesda, Md. Putting what is said to be first-of-its-kind irrigation technology in the hands of farmers greatly reduces the amount of water needed for row crop irrigation. The Nebraska project enables farmers to make more informed irrigation decisions by installing smart weather sensors in crop fields and using Internet of Things (IoT) technology on sprinklers connected to a smartphone app. 

“By using smart weather sensor technology in row crop irrigation, this program could help save 2.4 billion gallons of irrigation water over three years, which is equivalent to roughly 7,200 households over that time period,” says Hannah Birge, water and agriculture program manager at The Nature Conservancy. “The reduction of pumping also means less energy used and less labor expense for farmers.”

A Nebraska project, a scalable future

Nebraska was selected for the project, as it has the largest share of irrigated acres in the United States and the second largest cattle population. The Ogallala Aquifer, which spans the majority of the state, provides water to nearly one-fifth of wheat, corn, cotton and cattle produced in the United States and is the main water supply for people throughout the High Plains region. Grower and conservation efforts maintain the wetlands and sandbar islands of the Platte River, which provides habitat and clean water for people and wildlife.

“Nestlé Purina believes in adding value to agricultural lands that represent our supply chain,” says Diane Herndon, senior sustainability manager, Nestlé Purina. “Ranchers and farmers are doing important work to make sure that they are protecting our natural resources for future generations. We all need to continue to adapt to a changing marketplace and a changing climate, and this project helps to improve water use efficiency in irrigated row crops used as cattle feed.”

The project, which uses the FieldPrint Platform from Field to Market, Washington, D.C., to track progress, was initiated through the efforts of the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, a group of leading companies and conservation organizations focused on advancing and accelerating farmer-led programs in water conservation, water quality and soil health in key agricultural states. By engaging the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, best practices from the Nebraska project can extend to farmers in other regions.

“Farmers are continually innovating to bring food to the table more sustainably,” says Courtney Hall, Cargill technical sustainability manager. “By working with them and alongside The Nature Conservancy and Nestlé Purina, we’re scaling these solutions around water conservation to ensure an even more sustainable future for beef.”

“This project builds upon the success of a 2014 pilot in Western Nebraska, where we studied irrigation patterns and examined the impact on watersheds,” says Roric Paulman, farmer advisor of the Western Nebraska Irrigation Project. “Through collaborations like these, we will leave a legacy of water quantity and quality for generations.”