Another day, another blog about the drought.
I feel like a broken record going on and on about the current weather in the Southern Plains.
Yes, I know some of us got some moisture this last week, but in no way was this rain a drought buster. And as the wind picks up again, I am finding myself reliving all of the “fun” memories I have of the last major drought from 2011 to 2015. Back then I was working for the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts and we were struggling mightily to get the word out on how ag producers could help better adapt to the dry conditions while avoiding the specter of soil loss and dust storms due to the volatile mix of high velocity winds and dry soils.
Dry soils? High velocity winds? Like Yogi Berra said, “Its déjà vu all over again.”
A few things have changed–I’m obviously now longer with the Oklahoma Conservation Districts and now work with the USDA Southern Plains Climate Hub. Also, the jury is still out as to whether or not the current drought will grow into a monster like the one we saw last decade (although the prosecutor and the defense attorney are getting close to making their closing arguments). With that said, we’re looking at enough similarities now to make you uncomfortable with where all this dry weather is going.
Taking this into consideration, I’ve started digging back into the electronic files to review some of the concepts we were pushing back in ’11-’15 to see what kind of wisdom I could recycle as this current drought continues. What I found today is an idea that I think is extremely apropos as crop insurance adjusters start making their rounds through the region. It’s a simple Idea really…and it’s something I think all producers should do as more and more wheat fields get “zeroed out” as total failures.
Think before you plow.
As drought increases across the Southern Plains, agriculture producers should think long and hard before rushing into their fields to plow up acres where wheat is being abandoned or where they are considering growing summer crops. We all know that soil erosion is a constant concern in our part of the world and we all know what the wind has been doing these last few weeks. We really need to be careful. Even if you have had enough moisture to justify pulling a combine into the field, think a while before you start working up that ground after harvest. Now is a perfect time for producers to at least consider alternatives to traditional cultivation such as no-till and minimum-till—practices that not only save soil, they can also reduce many input costs while helping conserve water.
Studies have shown that no-till farming requires 3 to 4 gallons of diesel less per acre to produce a crop. Research also shows that each tillage pass you take can cost you a quarter of an inch of moisture or more. In fact, Oklahoma State University has reported that a conventional wheat-summer fallow cropping system loses roughly 59 percent of the rainfall a field receives back to the atmosphere through evaporation—something that no-till, strip till and other conservation tillage methods can help with.
Reducing tillage can also help a producer increase organic matter in their soil—and that means more water holding capacity. According to NRCS and Kansas State University, for every 1% increase in organic matter, the moisture holding capacity of soil triples. That equates to additional water for growing crops that will be critical if the current long-range outlook for drought continues.
The bottom line is that with the possibility over the next few months of below normal precipitation and above normal temperatures, we need to make sure we use every tool at our disposal to minimize our exposure to moisture loss and wind erosion. If we can do this in a way that saves us money on diesel (and fertilizer ), so much the better.
There are challenges for sure with any farming system during a drought (even more so now with our current herbicide cost and availability issues). Still, we need to do what we can to minimize our exposure to extreme drought. We don’t need to re-learn the lessons of the Dust Bowl. We have to take steps to reduce erosion and conserve moisture.
Let’s all take some time and think before we plow.