Fighting drought and flood with soil health
WASHINGTON D.C. — The Upper Midwest is in the grips of a historic drought, pretty close on the heels of several historic floods.
Both extremes cause devastating, expensive problems for agriculture. But agronomist Andrea Basche thinks an answer to improving outcomes for droughts and floods might be the same.
"It might surprise people that soil can be a part of the solution," Basche says. "Soil can offset some of the impacts related to drought and flood."
Basche was the lead researcher on a report entitled, "Turning Soils into Sponges: How Farmers Can Fight Floods and Droughts." Practices like no-till farming and using cover crops or perennials to maintain year-round soil coverage could be keys to managing moisture levels, her research suggests.
Basche received a doctorate in agronomy and sustainable agriculture at Iowa State University in 2015 and is now a Kendall Science Fellow in the Food & Environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non profit science advocacy organization.
"I really got excited about agriculture while learning about climate change impacts," Basche explains.
With climate change comes more extreme weather, like the drought currently gripping most of North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.
Basche's research looked at existing studies in soil health to analyze how agricultural practices could change outcomes during extreme conditions. The study focused on Iowa, because of Basche's familiarity with the state and because it is representative of Midwestern agriculture.
The study looked at no-till techniques, cover crops, alternative grazing systems, crop systems integrating livestock grazing, and perennial crops, and provided estimates for what would have happened had those techniques been used during recent floods and droughts in Iowa.
"And our model predicts that by shifting the most-erodible or least-profitable regions of Iowa to systems using perennial and cover crops, farmers could reduce rainfall runoff by up to 20 percent in flood events and make as much as 16 percent more water available to crops in droughts," the study says.
A shift to more perennials could mean more land in grass for haying or grazing, or it could include use of a perennial grain like kernza that could be hayed, grazed or harvested for a cash crop, Basche says.
Burleigh County, in central North Dakota, was among the first counties to have drought conditions show up this year and now is considered in extreme drought. Yet Menoken Farm, a conservation demonstration farm, on Aug. 9 harvested a field of peas that yielded 43 bushels per acre — on a field that used cover crops.
Darrell Oswald, manager of Menoken Farm and a district technician with Burleigh County Soil Conservation District, says some tools, like no-till techniques, have become common, and others, like use of cover crops with livestock, are catching on.
Oswald says Menoken Farm has had failures, too, but the unexpected pea yield shows how soil health principles and the use of year-round cover can provide consistency.
Menoken Farm, an effort of the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District, uses five principles for building soil health: soil armor, minimal soil disturbance, plant diversity, continual live plant/root and livestock integration.
"The more soil health principles you employ, the more resiliency there is in the system," Oswald says. "And it's more forgiving."
"Every inch counts in a drought," Basche says.
Basche's report gives ways to get farmers onboard with changing their management techniques, including providing incentives through farm bill programs.
Basche advises experimenting on small acres and finding leaders in the community who already have found success in alternative techniques. Oswald, also a fourth-generation rancher, says Menoken Farm tries to provide that moral support.
With the increased cost of damages from flood and drought, Basche says "we can't afford not to" invest in solutions.
"We need to be prepared for the next drought or flood that is waiting around the corner," Basche says. "Farmers shouldn't be left only with the options of early harvest or selling off livestock."