Conservation: Increasing Drought Resilience
By Bruce Knight
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When you’re in the middle of a drought, the two questions you have to ask yourself are: “How do I get through it?” and “How do I recover from it?” Conservation is critical to both surviving a drought and recovering from one. Applying conservation to the land increases resiliency to drought, making it possible to work through the down times and move forward when the rains come.
That’s why shortchanging conservation to fund drought relief is a poor choice. As the old saying goes, it’s pennywise and pound foolish. And farmers know that.
In a poll that Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research conducted for the National Farmers Union at the end of August, more than 70 percent of producers surveyed in 13 states in the nation’s heartland opposed the idea of paying for short-term drought relief by cutting conservation programs for farmers. Strangely, it’s a short-sighted strategy some politicians think will buy votes. But America’s producers understand that instead it will sacrifice the most effective long-term tools in the ongoing effort to protect the land from the cycles of drought that come and go. And they don’t want to do that.
Conservation helps beat periodic droughts in three ways: fostering soil health, building range health and improving water quality and availability. For example, increasing organic matter in the soil also boosts water availability since it improves the water retention capacity of the soil, thus aiding in drought resilience. When it comes time for drought recovery, nutrient management—capturing nitrogen and holding it in the upper levels of the soil—is always a good strategy. Conservation tillage is one way to do this. Another option, which is counter-intuitive to some, is to plant a cover crop. A cover crop will help keep nutrients in the top two feet of the soil, making them available for use by next year’s crop and preventing them from eroding into the streams and rivers.
Range health is tricky to balance. It’s important to provide grazing for the cows while not leaving them out on the range too long and damaging the root system of the grass. On my own ranch, I’ve worked hard to manage for a healthy range ecosystem, maximizing organic matter in the soil and preserving that layer of mulch on top. The result of that conservation-intensive effort is that I’ll run out of water for the cows to drink before I’ll run out of grass for them to graze. That’s the kind of resiliency we need to aim for. And why conservation investments in rotation systems, cross fences and watering facilities build resilience against future droughts.
Water management involves both keeping water in the soil and limiting runoff to maintain the water quality throughout our watersheds. That may involve conservation efforts to utilize irrigation water as effectively as possible or to build soil carbon to better manage rains when they come. Because the rains will come.
Droughts are temporary. We know there will be cycles of drought; we just can’t predict when, so we need to employ sound conservation practices to be prepared. Conservation programs help farmers and ranchers establish those practices.
Farmers and ranchers understand the cyclical nature of the weather, and the need to be ready for tough times. That’s why we buy crop insurance. That’s why we invest in conservation. Unfortunately, politicians have a tendency to look for a quick fix to address the immediate problem that stands between them and the next election. And we all know there’s an election coming up soon.
I urge you to encourage your legislator to take the long-range view for the good of farmers and ranchers. Keep the money pledged to conservation in the programs that will serve farmers—and consumers—well over the long haul. Don’t choose a short-term quick fix that puts dollars in the pocket today, but forfeits long-term conservation opportunities, for votes in November.
About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.
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