The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offers cost sharing for practices that help farmers increase resilience to drought. For more information about NRCS Drought assistance, including how to find your local NRCS office, check out 5 Steps for Assistance.
Well managed pastures (NRCS Practice 528 Prescribed Grazing) that allow forage to rest and recover to a taller height are more resistant to drought. Taller grass shades the ground, making it cooler, and reduces water loss from evaporation and transpiration. Taller grass also has longer roots that are able to access water deeper into the ground. As roots die, they leave behind organic matter, which holds more water, helping to buffer the effects of drought. When experiencing a drought, farmers can hold off on clipping pastures. They can also either “flash” graze – move the animals through paddocks quickly (a day or less) so they don’t damage grasses - or stop rotating and feed hay in one paddock.
Keeping the soil covered (NRCS Practice 484 Mulching) substantially lowers the soil temperature and reduces water loss from evaporation and transpiration, something that is critical during times of drought. For instance, on a hot summer day, near surface (1 inch depth) soil temperatures at a farm in east-central New York varied by 45° F depending on the soil cover. Leaving last year’s plant residue in the field (NRCS Practice 329 Residue and Tillage Management No-Till or 345 Reduced Till) covers the soil and reduces water loss from evaporation and transpiration while building soil organic matter.
Cover crops (NRCS Practice 340 Cover Crop) keep the soil covered and therefore cooler while increasing organic matter in the soil. One percent of organic matter in soil can hold as much as 20,000 gallons of water per acre. Higher amounts of organic matter in the soil allows it to absorb and retain more moisture. Cover crops can be interseeded or seeded after the cash crop is harvested (pictured is fall cereal rye in spring planted after corn harvest the previous fall).
Farmers wishing to increase the efficiency of their water use could utilize micorirrigation (NRCS practice 441 Irrigation System, Microirrigation). Microirrigation may be applied with drip tape or drip tubing using point source emitters or micro-sprinklers. These systems deliver water through low volume and low pressure closer to the plant and root zone for more efficient uptake. Due to the low application volumes of these systems, a higher degree of management is required to ensure the soil moisture is maintained. This management generally requires the system to be operated more frequently at short operating durations. Microirrigation systems also may be utilized to deliver fertilizers and chemicals to the root zone using controlled irrigation rates. This reduces the leaching and runoff of nutrients and chemicals into ground and surface water bodies. In conjunction with irrigation, NRCS helps farmers learn how and when to apply microirrigation based on soil type and crop needs (NRCS Conservation Practice 449 Irrigation Water Management). Producers are encouraged to monitor the potential available water through soil feel and appearance or commercially available soil moisture meters.
NRCS was founded in 1933 during the Dust Bowl to help farmers conserve soil, especially during times of drought.
Photos by USDA