Best Practices for Drought Management in Agriculture

Drought is a creeping natural disaster. It’s not fast like a tornado, it’s not trackable from space like a hurricane, it’s not as TV-worthy as wildfires, and it’s not as dramatic as its opposite, widespread flooding. It’s also generally not even identified until damage to local ecosystems, including agriculture, has already appeared. Is it a dry period or a drought? Will it rain next week? Next month? Next year, if we’re lucky? 

Farmers are exquisitely vulnerable to drought, especially severe droughts lasting for years, and that makes planning for the current year and the following one(s) uncertain. After all, in the mid 2010s a devastating California drought lasted seven years but was punctuated with drenching rains in 2017 that brought massive flooding and mudslides. Few farmers were prepared for the return of rain in such catastrophic volume and aside from direct damage to their fields and infrastructure, they missed some critical opportunities to take advantage of the bounty. Almost immediately, the drought returned and farmers across the US are experiencing renewed hardship. In the west and southwest, some of the most productive farmland in the world is suffering devastating water shortages.

Drought Management

During the current drought, there may be little farmers can do about water supplies. In fact, in some regions farmers are facing a reduction in their water shares from formerly dependable sources like the Colorado River. The effects of drought are long-lasting, though, and right now it’s important to take steps to mitigate foreseeable consequences.

  • Insect pressure. Increased heat, unmitigated by regular rainfall, can actually speed up the life cycle of harmful caterpillars, which means they appear early, in larger numbers, and may attack crops they usually ignore.
  • Weed pressure: When crops grow poorly and don’t produce a leafy canopy to shade the ground, weeds are ready to take over. Herbicides are less effective and may even harm crops that are weak from heat and inadequate water.
  • Nutrient deficiencies. When soil is dry, nutrients can’t travel through it effectively and they may become completely unavailable when roots are undeveloped.

There are some mitigating steps farmers can take, like adjusting chemicals, the way they’re applied, and earlier crop inspections to identify emerging problems.

Decision Making

Once drought conditions have appeared, farmers may face some difficult and even heartbreaking choices:

  • How many acres can I realistically support this year?
  • Should I plant alternative crops? What kind, what percentage?
  • Will I lose my almonds, grapes, or asparagus before they can even produce? How should I approach this kind of crisis?
  • Should I apply for crop assistance?
  • Will I run short on feed supplies? Can I make it up?
  • Will I need to cull my herd?
  • How can I survive this season financially?
  • Will I have to sell the farm?

Planning for the Next Time

You can’t tell for sure how long this drought will last, and you certainly can’t predict when the next one will hit, but it’s widely accepted that longer, hotter, more frequent dry seasons are here to stay. Current issues with water supplies are almost certain to continue and worsen. If you’re a farmer who intends to go the distance, it’s time to get creative.

Drought resilience is a hot topic in US government agencies and in agricultural publications. There are some basic, but effective steps farmers can take to improve their chances when conditions get bad.

Crop planning according to local climate:

Farmers like almond growers, who are focused on long-term production, generally locate in areas where both surface water and groundwater supplies have been historically reliable. When surface water supplies are cut off or drastically reduced, they’re theoretically able to rely on groundwater to keep their groves producing. This works in the short term, but the more almond growers rely on this strategy, the more stress is being placed on surface water resources and aquifers. Land subsidence has already appeared in California’s Central and San Joaquin Valleys as farmers switch to water-intensive crops. The water table in some areas has fallen by hundreds of feet. As water supplies become increasingly unreliable, farmers may switch at least part of their land to annual crops which do not represent such a large capital investment, and which can easily be shifted to other crops during severe conditions.

Soil improvements:

Moisture-holding capacity is an important strategy in resisting the effects of drought. Loss of water due to evaporation, runoff, or seepage can represent a significant percentage of withdrawals, and increases pressure on already stressed aquifers. Steps to increase organic matter in the soil, such as reduced till or no-till practices, cover crops and strategic crop rotations have proven successful in improving soil moisture retention.

Irrigation efficiency

Most irrigation methods in the US have been improved significantly in recent years. While even flood irrigation has been improved, the most efficient systems tend to be drip irrigation and point source irrigation. The latter option is most appropriate for long-term crops like fruit and nut trees. These methods require a more substantial capital investment, but when evaluating the costs vs benefits, it’s helpful to recognize that irrigation within a plant (or tree’s) canopy not only conserves water but concentrates it where it’s most needed and inhibits weed growth in areas where they’re not wanted.

Irrigation methods that are not so closely focused can also benefit from efficiency improvements. Modern sprinklers that distribute water close to the ground, especially under a crop’s leafy layers mitigate water loss through evaporation, eliminate problems with scorching, and reduce the tendency to over-water.

Storage Capacity

In those seasons where drought has finally broken, or even when one takes a brief break with a sudden outpouring of precipitation, such as California’s recent atmospheric river weekend, farmers probably wish they had an unlimited supply of buckets to collect the precious liquid. Alas, buckets aren’t practical, but some farmers have invested in the construction of irrigation reservoirs, which are perfectly suited to capture and store such a deluge. Irrigation reservoirs provide critical stores of high-quality water that can hold farmers through seasons of drought when properly managed. In times of intense rainfall, the reservoirs are passively filled. In times when the available water supply doesn’t match the timing of your crop’s growing season, irrigation reservoirs can tide you over. It’s critical that these reservoirs be constructed to hold water with minimal loss to seepage or evaporation. We’ll discuss those details in future blogs, but it’s a great idea to give us a call at (541) 447-0712 or visit us online at www.btlliners.com. Our team of experts are ready to help you assess your needs and discuss the optimal solution to help you face future growing seasons with confidence.


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