Great Plains growers are no stranger to droughts and volatile weather. A common saying is another drought is never more than a few weeks away.
But could we have another Dust Bowl some day? I suspect some of you may think about that on occasion while sitting in your tractor or pickup or walking through your fields.
Based on weather patterns, some experts think the worst has yet to come. A recent article published in Mother Jones says “much has changed in the U.S. heartland since the 1930s, with widespread irrigation and — on some farms — improved agricultural practices. But given the rising temperatures and worsening droughts caused by global warming, some scientists are asking whether the U.S. breadbasket is headed for another Dust Bowl.”
The article shares some developments that climate “experts” say are pointing to that scenario:
• In a 2018 National Climate Assessment, U.S. scientists warned that under current warming scenarios, temperatures in the southern Great Plains could increase by 3.6 to 5.1 F by 2050 and by 4.4 F to 8.4 F by 2100, compared to the 1976-2005 average. The region is projected to be hit by dozens more days with temperatures above 100 F.
• The Ogallala Aquifer—which makes up most of the High Plains Aquifer System and supplies the water for 30-46% of irrigated land in some Great Plains states — has been steadily overdrawn in recent decades. Some estimates show the aquifer could be 70% depleted within 50 years. Mother Jones reported that during the 3-year period between 2011 and 2013, the aquifer lost nearly as much water as it did between 1980 and 1995.
• Dry soils spurned on by droughts and high temperatures. Data shows that both drought and heat are becoming more common—and perhaps increasing the feedback effects between them, the magazine reported.
To be fair, land practices have changed and farmers, researchers, agronomists, Extension and NRCS agents and many other stakeholders deserve credit. Droughts during the 1950s, and another historically bad one in 2012 did not produce clouds of dust in most areas.
No-till wasn’t around as a practice during the 1930s, but today the U.S. has more than 100 million acres of no-till. Cover crop acres have more than doubled in the last 5 years to 15 million, the 2017 Census of Ag shows. A large reduction in “intensive tillage” in recent years was also documented.
No-till practices have always been an evolution, not a revolution. Farmers see their neighbors succeeding with the practice and take note. Or they’ve heard influencers like Gabe Brown, Dwayne Beck or Ray Archuleta speak and driven back home with something to serious think about — eliminating soil disturbance, keep the soil covered and rotating livestock cropping patterns.
How do we speed up that evolution a bit, so we are not overrun by weather challenges?
I don’t think passing unfunded mandates is the answer. But I do think the U.S. government needs to seriously look at boosting incentives for conservation tillage and cover crops even further than they have now. When the economic risk is lessened for the short term it’s a lot easier for farmers to think about going to something new.
We also need to take a serious look at what happens in the market that lets growers abuse the soil and keep getting away with it. No-till and regenerative agriculture are more profitable, and we need to keep spreading the word.