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Consider these steps to ‘drought-proof’ your farm

It’s no secret that Missouri has been at a rainfall deficit since late summer 2017. At press time, nearly 70 percent of the state was still in drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor for Sept. 13. Drought intensity and resulting impacts vary widely, but every producer in Missouri likely experienced some decline in production due to drier-than-average conditions. Whether it’s reduced hay yield, dormant pastures, decreased crop yield or lack of water for livestock, many farmers and ranchers had to alter short-term plans in response. When the drought breaks, it will be time to think about long-term recovery in preparation for the next drought.

I spent quite a bit of time across the state this summer talking to producers about drought impacts on their farm and mitigation strategies to consider. Many producers told me they weren’t feeling the effects quite as much as their neighbors. For these folks, the common theme was that they used the 2012 drought as a learning experience and have worked to “drought-proof” their operation since then. It’s not that they didn’t have any ill effects this summer, but the situation wasn’t as serious for them as it was for so many.

In contrast to western states where water is severely limiting, we are typically spoiled with more than 40 inches of rainfall on average each year in Missouri. Because annual rainfall of 40 inches is more than enough to grow a bumper crop and plenty of forage, we aren’t forced to be as efficient at capturing and using that moisture as we should be. Improving water infiltration into the soil, establishing reliable water sources for livestock and keeping forages healthy and diverse are all things to consider when thinking about guarding your operation against drought.

Keeping residue and actively growing plants on your fields and pastures at all times will reduce runoff and increase the amount of water that makes it into the soil profile. No-till, minimum-till, cover crops and rotational grazing are all practices that will increase infiltration over time.   

If you rely on ponds to water livestock, you would be wise to add a few water tanks that are fed by a well or rural water. Even if you don’t use them all the time, at least you have an alternative when the ponds get low. Frost-free waterers can also save you time and hassle during the winter by keeping you from chopping ice. If you only have ponds, consider getting them cleaned out to increase the volume of water they can hold. The Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) have programs right now to assist with the expense of cleaning out ponds that were built with cost-share money originally. Contact your local SWCD Office for more information.

Diversifying forages to include some native warm-season grasses or warm-season annuals is a good idea for any livestock operation to fill the cool-season grass “summer slump.” Warm-season forages are beneficial every year but are especially valuable during a drought. Their extended root system can access water deep in the soil profile.

Having a grazing and fertility plan for your pastures will keep them healthy and productive and,  as a result, they will be impacted less by drought. A fertility program such as MFA’s Nutri-Track utilizes grid soil samples to make fertilizer recommendations that get the right product in the right place. This increases the health of your plants on every acre, making them more productive and improving their stress tolerance.

A rotational grazing system also helps pastures be more productive and resilient. It keeps the plants from getting grazed too short and gives them periods of rest so they can recover before grazing again. Among other benefits, this allows the roots to stay robust for better access to water and nutrients.

None of these things are the silver bullet to drought conditions, but if implemented they will slowly make your operation more “drought-proof” for the future.

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