Water, weeds and biofuels

Environmental issues are lining up to challenge farmers with water, weeds and biofuels leading the charge. Add the constant challenge of high desert weather and farmers face a daunting future.

"Mother Nature has a heavy hand, one that always holds the wild card," says Ron Torell, Nevada livestock extension specialist based in Elko with the Nevada Cooperative Extension Service.

"The beef industry accounts for two-thirds of state's agricultural economy," he adds, "and the cloud hanging over our head is ethanol production."

Due to federal fuel subsidies, 3 billion bushels of corn went to ethanol production this past year.

Over the next three years that's projected to reach over 6 billion bushels. And that corn is taken out of the mouths of cows.

Each 10-cent increase in corn costs makes the price paid for a 550-pound cow move 2 cents in the opposite direction, says Torell.

"Fuel has become more important than feed," he says.

To compound the woes of ranchers and farmers, the cost of diesel fuel has gone from $2.50 to $3.50 a gallon. Grazing fees for a cow and calf on public lands increased to $13.50 per month in 2006, up $1 from the previous year.

The only respite comes in the fact that nationally, the supply of cattle is low, boosting livestock prices.

But water is the big storm brewing.

Wrangling over water in the West is nothing new, but as developers push for projects to transfer rural water to urban areas, water ranks top of the list as the most challenging issue facing agriculture.

The Nevada Cooperative Extension Service released a report listing water issues as the five top priority topics statewide. Issues include water rights, water rights sales, water transfers within and outside basins and environmental regulations on water use.

Control of noxious weeds ran close behind.

"I can't think of an area of agriculture that isn't threatened," says Earl Creech, state weed specialist with Nevada Cooperative Extension Service.

When exotic weeds take over, they displace alfalfa and rangeland grasses, reducing forage and feed for animals. Scientists estimate the spread of these invasive plants at 12 to 18 percent each year.

The culprits: Russian knapweed, tall whitetop, leafy spurge. "A bunch of other weeds are lurking on our borders," says Creech. "There's no silver bullet to stop it."

Meanwhile, farmers with an eye to the future are looking at alternative crops.

Jay Davison, area forage and alternative crop specialist for University of Nevada, Reno Cooperative Extension, says 93 percent of the state's farmland is used for alfalfa grass hay.

"So just about anything else is an alternative crop," he says. Onions are a long established staple, but crops gaining a foothold include wine grapes and tef, an African grain grass.

Tef production in the state more than doubled this year, up to 500,000 pounds, he says. And it's possible it will double again next year.

As more people discover they are allergic to the gluten content in wheat, tef becomes an alternative, says Davison.

"But the challenge," he adds, "is finding a market, because it's not a mass market." To that end, the economic development agency in Churchill County received grants to study ways of marketing and processing tef.

And an enterprising farmer near Fallon turned a 20-acre dairy farm to turf production and plans to expand to keep up with urban development.

As urban population grows, farmlands will grow increasingly desirable to developers, says Davison.

"Want to be a farmer? The cost of land and water makes it impossible," he says. "You can only get in through marryin' or buryin'."


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