The Beginning Farmer’s Guide to Preparing for Drought

These five steps will help you store and conserve water so your farm will continue producing during times of drought.

by Jamie Aramini
PHOTO: Photo: michaelaw/FreePhotos

The word drought can be downright overwhelming. It conjures up images of wilted tomato leaves, deep cracks in the land and dusty dirt roads. From localized dry spells to epic water shortages of Dust Bowl proportions, farmers have long endured droughts as another challenge to their businesses. For beginning farmers, lack of experience adds to the stress. Will a drought strike? When? How will the farm hold up under such conditions?

It’s safe to say that nearly every farmer will experience drought at some point in his career. The White House estimates that nearly two-thirds of the United States experienced drought in 2012, costing $30 billion in the agricultural economy alone. While we cannot keep drought from happening, we can take several steps to mitigate the damage done if and when it strikes.

As you begin to think through a farm-resiliency plan for drought, keep two things in mind:

  1. how the farm stores water
  2. how best to conserve each precious drop once you’ve got it

Creating a reliable, sustainable management plan now for water can save a lot of grief later on.

1. Assess Your Water Supply

Before even purchasing your farm, it is a good idea to consider what water resources are available on your land. While using municipal water supplies can be convenient, costs will quickly add up and water restrictions could prevent you from using such water during a drought.

An ideal farm property would have plenty of water either via a deep well or spring with a working pump. Ponds, streams, and creeks can all contribute to the farm’s water supply in dry times. Some states, particularly in the western U.S., have laws and restrictions on the use of water rights, even on your own property. Speak with your local extension office or water office to find out what the rules are where you live.

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2. Capture Rain Water

Once you’ve found your farm, it is time to begin planning farm infrastructure. Water should be one of your first thoughts as you are planning fences, outbuildings, et cetera. Work to situate crops and livestock in a way that your water supply will be easily accessible.

When precipitation falls on your property, be prepared to capture as much of it as you can through the use of rain barrels and water tanks. To ensure that you have enough water storage to meet the needs of livestock, review the USDA’s handy list of water consumption per animal.

3. Build Healthy Soil

Tanks certainly aren’t the only place to store water. Healthy soil with plenty of organic matter retains moisture better than poor, dense soils, so keep adding compost to your land.

Swales, which are closed ditches built along the natural contour of your farmland, can also be useful for capturing water and sinking it into the soil. Unlike a ditch, where the water is flowing to another place, swales hold water much like a bathtub, slowing it down and allowing it maximum time to absorb into the soil. As a bonus, plants and trees can be planted along the swale line and will benefit from the added moisture.

4. Make a Water Conservation Plan

Now that you’ve managed to store plenty of water on your farm, what’s next? Conservatively using the water you’ve saved is critical to surviving dry-weather conditions. There are several ways you can conserve water on your farm:

  • Minimize evaporation by planting crops closer together and using heavy mulch to cover soil.
  • Use irrigation systems, such as drip lines, that provide targeted, maximum impact without losing moisture to overspray or evaporation.
  • Schedule irrigation times in the cool, early part of the day to keep evaporation to a minimum. Don’t water unless you’re sure the soil needs it—use a soil moisture meter if you aren’t sure.
  • Weed frequently so that you aren’t wasting moisture on something that isn’t intended for harvest.
  • If your current crop load is using too much water for your area, consider switching up what you plant or changing crop rotations. Select native plants and plants that thrive on low moisture. In the vegetable garden, look for seeds labeled “drought-resistant” or “drought-tolerant.”

For a more complete list of suggestions for drought preparation, visit the USDA’s National Resource Conservation Service website.

5. Stay Water-Aware

If you’ve planned ahead, there will be less reason to panic when drought sets in. However, it’s still important to monitor your farm’s water situation and allocate it wisely. To see if your area is experiencing dry conditions or full-blown drought, visit the National Drought Mitigation Center’s U.S. Drought Monitor. This useful website, produced by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the USDA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tracks rainfall and climate conditions to map drought patterns nationwide.

Drought conditions can also cause toxicity problems for livestock. Nitrate levels can increase in their forage, leading to illness and death. Even if you have sufficient water stored on the farm, water quality can be a problem during hot, dry weather. If your area is experiencing severe drought, speak with your local extension agency to arrange testing for your water and forage to protect livestock.

Remember, the best time to start planning for a potential drought is now. Don’t get caught without a plan when disaster strikes. Utilize these simple ideas today to prepare your new farm for dry weather.

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