Farm Talk

May 16, 2013

Preparing for future drought through conservation

by Danielle Beard
CNHI

Parsons, Kansas — Task force and rainmakers — not the typical dialogue  used for most farmers and ranchers, but for those in attendance at the Ottawa County Conservation District Field Day in Miami, Oklahoma learned how both those terms can be beneficial to them.

“The only water that’s ever been or ever will be is here today,” Executive Director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, Clay Pope stated.

 This, Pope explains is why it is important for everyone to do their part to conserve for the future.

“One of the things we have been very successful in is working to protect the quality of water in the state of Oklahoma,” he added.

On the subject of water, Pope says the state is working on developing legislation to help with future drought.

According to him, during a recent meeting, the state climatologist came in and said while we are currently seeing rain, if you look at the picture of the state of Oklahoma from last year, it would look a lot like this year — in terms of rain.

“Now does that mean we are going to go into a drought again this summer? “ Pope asked. “No, not necessarily, but we need to remember that not everywhere is out of the drought and all it will take is a hot June and below average precipitation to put us right back where we were.”

“What we’re trying to do is get the government to be proactive in the event of a drought instead of reactive.”

To plan ahead the state is looking to create a ‘drought task force.’

“When the Governor declares a drought emergency, the head of the conservation commission, the head of the Oklahoma Water Resources board and the Secretary of Agriculture will come together to form an advisory drought task force and would then advise the state government what to do to deal with the drought,” he explained.

Also part of the task force is to create a fund to put money into during normal years, that way it will already be available in the event of a drought.

The purpose of the “lack of rainy day fund” is to cover and assist in everything from water conservation, infrastructure, help with rural fire protection, fire danger, cost share assistance, water for livestock — clean out ponds, drill wells, install waterers — to providing assistance for receding pastures.

“Also, helping guys convert to no-till and implementing better irrigation practices and things like that to not only help out in a time of emergency but to come out of the drought in a little better shape than when we went into it,” Pope added.

Keeping with the theme of water conservation, State Soil Scientist for Oklahoma, Steve Alspach demonstrated the impact of rainfall on different types of cropland with the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) rainfall simulator.

In the experiment, five different plots — clean till, conventional, conservation, no-till and bermuda — were displayed with catch pans under each to examine how much water infiltrated the soil and buckets at the end of each plot to estimate the amount of sedimentation and run-off from each plot. “Rainfall” was then turned on for a few minutes and then each plot was evaluated.

The results of the experiment show conventionally tilled soils had higher levels of run-off and very little soil infiltration, while plots with higher organic matter had much better infiltration and less run-off.

According to Alspach, “the point is to show how we manage our land determines what soaks in and what runs off.”

To help farmers improve soil health and for future droughts, soil scientists are encouraging the planting of cover crops.

“Cover crops help reintroduce organic matter back into the soil, put nitrogen in the soil, has a shading effect that keeps weeds at bay, and keeps soil temps cooler,” Alspach explained.

Cover crops have been proven to keep soil 20 degrees lower in the heat.

“The benefit of lower soil temperatures is that it reduces water evaporation in the soil,” he added.

In terms of conservation, the objective of cover crops is to mimic nature, disturb the soil as little as possible, have a living cover as many days a year as possible and protect soil.

Alspach says rotating crops helps cut down disease pressure and sedimentation.

“It’s time and cost efficient, because you are reducing herbicide use,” he added.

“Balancing crop cycle times are really the only major challenge to this method,” he continued.

In conclusion, Pope said, “We’re just all doing our best to work together with NRCS and Farm Services Agency (FSA) to provide food for everyone, conserve water and soil for the future and do so in a way that we can still make a living off the land. £