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    8 Ways for Dealing with Drought on the Farm

    Authored by Jodi Helmer

    Drought takes a major toll on agriculture. A lack of rainfall makes it difficult to irrigate crops or provide water to livestock; reduce access to grazing lands; increase the risk of insect damage; and cause production losses.

    This summer, drought conditions have affected more than half of the lower 48 states—and the impacts are rising. Drought tends to be cyclical and farms can expect to deal with drought conditions every to two to six years, depending on location.

    Implementing these eight strategies can help minimize the impact of drought.

    1: Develop a drought plan.

    These plans are most common in large farming operations and include details for managing drought or water restrictions, which might include leaving some land fallow for the season or budgeting for water delivery charges. Colorado State University Extension offers a free template to help farmers create drought management plans.

    2: Build healthy soil.

    Healthy soil retains more moisture. Adopting practices like no-till and planting cover crops can build organic matter in the soil, which makes it easier for soil to retain moisture during dry periods, according to the Soil Health Institute. The proactive practice will help make the ground more resilient to drought for future extreme weather events.

    3: Adopt conservation practices.

    Leaving crop residues on the field, mulching with straw or cardboard, and applying compost to the fields are all methods of saving water that will help with drought resilience. 

    4: Store water.

    On-farm water storage is essential for irrigating crops during drought. The best type of water storage depends on your specific needs.

    Disconnecting the downspouts on your home and adding a few rain barrels should be sufficient to irrigate a backyard vegetable patch but large tanks designed for agriculture use will help farmers build resilience to drought. One study found that during drought, farmers in arid regions who stored water experienced 13 percent fewer crop losses than those with limited on-farm water storage. You can also store water in ditches along fields.

    Remember, stored water can be used for irrigation but should never be used for drinking or cooking. 

    5: Choose drought-tolerant crops.

    Some crops require more crops than others. Almonds, avocado, rice and sugarcane are among the “thirstiest” crops in the world and require more water per acre than crops like corn, sweet potatoes and watermelon that can be grown with minimal irrigation.

    Choosing drought-tolerant crops like okra, Swiss chard, tomatoes, zucchini and pole beans will ensure that you can continue producing food in your garden even if rainfall is nonexistent and water restrictions are in effect.

    6: Pull weeds.

    In the garden, weeds compete with plants for access to water. Weeding the garden discourages competition for water and ensures that rainfall or irrigation are directed to the plants you want to grow, not weeds that are taking up space (and sucking up valuable water resources).

    7: Implement drip irrigation.

    When it comes to waterwise gardening, drip irrigation is tops. The thin tubes place drippers near plant roots, allowing the system to deliver water to the base of the plant.

    Drip irrigation is the most efficient method of watering because it eliminates runoff and prevents wind from carrying water in other directions. Researchers at MIT found that installing drip irrigation systems can reduce water consumption as much as 60 percent and increase yields up to 90 percent compared to conventional irrigation systems.

    8: Manage livestock.

    Your livestock should have access to fresh, clean water to help them stay hydrated. Be prepared to provide extra water during dry periods. Drought can also impact the amount of pasture available for forage, making it necessary to provide extra food.

    Watch for signs of heat stress, including excessive panting and thirst, rapid heartrate and lethargy and call the vet if an animal is in distress. Shade and shelter can minimize the risk of heat stress in livestock.

    Periods of drought are inevitable. The more proactive you are, the more resilient your homestead or farm will be when water resources are scarce.