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It's Hard for Plants to Sprout in Drought

Written by Renee Curry, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Student in the Graduate Degree Program of Ecology

Drought impacts all of us, even those who have not even stepped foot on a farm or a ranch. All over the media, there have been stories about the four-year crippling drought in California. There have been widespread wildfires, decreased food production and severe water restrictions in the state of California. Severe droughts such as this California drought, as well as the drought that occurred in the U.S. Great Plains from 2010-2012, are predicted to occur more frequently due to global climate change.

Motivation

Droughts that occur in the U.S. Great Plains are of great interest to me due to my family history. My mother’s family homesteaded in Oklahoma and farms winter wheat, while my father’s family grows seed corn and soybeans in southeastern South Dakota.  I am the 6th generation of my father’s family to work on the farm that my ancestors homesteaded near the Missouri River in 1861. Given my family background,  my dissertation research focuses on the evaluating the impacts of drought on numerous grassland and crop sites in the U.S. Great Plains.  It is my hope that my research will further our understanding of drought to help farmers and ranchers with the tough decisions when it comes to drought mitigation and drought response. The life of a farmer is already unpredictable due to the weather. It does make you wonder how much farmers will be impacted when certain extreme weather events such as droughts will be more commonplace with the changing climate.

What is Drought?

According to the leading institution of drought research, the U.S. National Drought Mitigation Center, drought originates from the lack of precipitation over an extended period of time (usually a season or longer), which results in water shortages for a variety of users such as humans, wildlife and crops.  There are a variety of significant economic, social and environmental stresses that can worsen or improve drought.  This flow chart focuses on the drought impacts to agricultural and non-agricultural sectors and the negative impacts on end-users, such as farmers, ranchers, tourists and municipal water utilities [1].

Impacts of 2012 Drought

The 2012 severe drought in the Great Plains and Midwest cost the nation approximately $35 billion dollars. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, 80 percent of agricultural land experienced drought in 2012, which made this drought more extensive than any other drought since the 1950s. The 2012 drought rapidly increased in severity from June to July and continued into August. The timing of the increased drought severity in early July coincided with the most important time for crop development, especially for corn.  Severe or greater drought in 2012 impacted 67 percent of cattle production and about 70-75 percent of corn and soybean production. The 2012 drought resulted in decreased amounts of corn and soybean, higher prices for corn and soybeans, and higher prices and reduced amount of hay and pasture for cattle in 2013.

I recently had a conversation with my father about the 2012 drought and its impact on our family farm in southeastern South Dakota. He mentioned that it was the first time in the last 35 years that ZERO seed corn grew on the non-irrigated land and that they had to pump a significant amount of water from the Missouri River (which costs money) to irrigate the remaining corn and soybean fields. However, in other areas where the climate is much drier (less rainfall) such as the western regions of the Great Plains, there is no such water source available. As a result, irrigation is NOT a viable option.

Drought Mitigation Techniques

The United States Natural Resource Conservation Service details specific techniques that farmers and ranchers can utilize to mitigate drought impacts. This report suggests that farmers can mitigate drought impacts by minimizing tillage, altering planting dates, keeping soil covered, killing off the cover crops before planting the primary production crop, and injecting fertilizer so that it does come into contact with more soil moisture. Ranchers can mitigate drought impacts by having a drought plan in place before it occurs, not overgrazing, having alternative feeds and forages, improving water resources and culling herds.

I recently had a conversation with a family friend who is a farmer and rancher in central South Dakota. I asked, “What are you already doing to prepare for drought?” He responded that given that they do live in a fairly dry climate and do not have access to irrigation water, drought is just a way of life for them.  In a non-drought year, he feeds wheat to the cattle but if a drought does occur (for example, the 2012 drought) the cattle feed on natural growing grass instead of wheat. He went on to further explain that they always have a three-year supply of grass for the cattle to eat if a drought does occur.  While I found this rather fascinating, I then wondered what will happen if the droughts become so extreme that there isn’t enough grass to feed their cattle?

After this conversation, I then attended the American’s Grassland Conference. This conference brought together scientists, farmers, ranchers and policy experts to discuss issues related to the North American grasslands. I had an opportunity to tour the Pawnee Grasslands in Northeast Colorado with the local US Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Systems Research Unit (USDA – ARS) and was able to interact with local ranchers. This particular region receives so little precipitation that grazing cattle is more economically feasible than growing crops. As we learned on this tour, utilizing the correct cattle grazing techniques is essential when attempting to mitigate future drought risk. These particular ranchers that work with the USDA-ARS herd their cattle into different pastures over time to ensure that the grass can grow back at a healthy rate. It has been proven that grass that only has light or moderate grazing often show less mortality due to drought than grass that has been heavily grazed prior to drought [2].


Learning about cattle grazing techniques with scientists from the US Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Systems Research Unit (USDA – ARS) and local ranchers in the Pawnee Grassland in Northeast Colorado.

Conclusion

Drought is just the way of life for many farmers and ranchers in the U.S. Great Plains. Increasing our understanding of how different plants respond to drought is necessary in order to better inform farmers (when and what to plant) and ranchers (when and how much to graze). Certain questions still exist given that we are expecting more frequent, severe droughts to occur with the changing climate.  Are the current techniques utilized by farmers and ranchers enough to mitigate future, more severe droughts? In the example of the farmer/rancher in central South Dakota, what will they feed their cattle if drought causes both the wheat and grass production to fail? Drought is an important topic for me given that both sides of my family farm. We have to remain optimistic that our way of life on the farm will be sustainable in the future to carry on the dreams of our ancestors. As my grandfather was quoted in a South Dakota magazine, “South Dakota is a land of infinite opportunities.”

References:

[1]  Kellner O and Niyogi D. 2014. Assessing drought vulnerability ofagricultural production systems in context of the 2012 drought. J Anim Sci 92:2811–22.   Link: https://www.animalsciencepublications.org/publications/jas/pdfs/92/7/2811

[2]  D.D. Briske, J.D. Derner, D.G. Milchunas, K.W. Tate, 2011. An evidence-based assessment of prescribed grazing practices. Conservation Benefits of Rangeland Practices: Assessment, Recommendations, and Knowledge Gaps, United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Washington, DC, pp. 21–74. Link: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1045796.pdf.

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