Why water conservation is critical for responsible soil stewardship

Why water conservation is critical for responsible soil stewardship

Responsible soil stewardship is one of the most important practices a landowner can value. Farmers simply would not be able to maintain consistently healthy yields without soil stewardship.

Though there are several areas of soil conservation that farmers must be well-versed in, one of the most important, at least in recent years, is the preservation of fresh water. Thanks to recent years of drought, water conservation is a topic that needs to be addressed with just about every landowner and farmer.

Current drought levels in the Midwest

As of early December, much of the Midwest remains in some level of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

Though there are some areas of Iowa that are simply abnormally dry, much of the state is in either moderate or severe drought. Here in Northwest Iowa, and in parts of Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and more, much of our farmland remains in extreme drought and exceptional drought territory.

Unfortunately, conditions have been similar for some time now. It’s critical during these times to be mindful and protective of the water sources that help grow our crops and sustain our livestock.

The drought should continue in the coming months

There is not much good news yet on the drought front, either. The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook released on November 30, 2022, shows that much of our territory here in the Midwest will remain in drought conditions through February of next year.

This means water conservation needs to remain top of mind not only now, but also in the near future – and perhaps the foreseeable future, as well.

Why does healthy soil matter?

You may be wondering what the connection is between water conservation and soil stewardship. Obviously, crops need water to grow, which of course happens in soil. But why else?

Water conservation and soil stewardship are so closely intertwined because healthy soil can capture and store more water than unhealthy soil. That is a valuable quality in times like this where much of the farmland in our coverage area finds itself in heavy drought conditions.

Healthy soil behaves much like a sponge does when it becomes wet – it soaks up the water and holds onto it. Soil is able to capture and retain water because of the organic matter and living organisms that can be found in it. These matter and organisms carry water to plants.

Farm with soil health principles

The US Department of Agriculture advises farmers to make sure they use good soil health principles, including avoiding plowing and tilling, which can harm how well soil can take in and keep hold of water over time.

Tilling, for example, breaks up and destroys beneficial soil aggregates and can result in compaction. When compaction occurs, the water has nowhere to go in the soil and won’t be retained nearly as well.

Farmers should add the following practices to their farming to keep soil as health as possible:

  • Reduced or no-till farming
  • Growing cover crops
  • Using a diverse rotation of both crops and animals

These practices can help ensure that there is an increase in microbial activity, a build up of organic matter and more storage of carbon in farmland soil. This all leads to more successful water retention.

What to do when water supplies are limited

Now onto water conservation.

There are many practices farmers can undertake – and absentee landowners should encourage of their farmer tenants – to keep on top of water supplies and make sure they remain in a healthy place for the good of crop yields and livestock production.

Check irrigation pipelines

One of the immediate actions that can be taken by farmers is to look at whether improvements can be made to irrigation systems. Perhaps your system is outdated or is damaged in certain areas and leaking water, which is just wasting a valuable resource. Consider updating the system to one that is more efficient or, at the very least, tackling some of those needed repairs.

You might be surprised by how much water you can save with an update. For example, an irrigation system outfitted with a new pipeline and gravity sprinkler system can, in some cases, use half the water needed to run a more outdated, inefficient flood irrigation system.

You can also look into systems that use drip irrigation, which delivers water right to a plant’s roots instead of spraying. This also reduces water lost to evaporation. Some farmers can also see an increase in yields with a drip irrigation system.

With either irrigation setup, it’s also smart to schedule irrigation wisely. Keep a close eye on weather forecasts to know when you may not need to water crops as much.

Grow cover crops

Cover crops don’t just help maintain soil health. Planting cover crops can also cool the surface of the ground. This can result in less water lost due to evaporation. Many farmers choose to plant grass, small grains and legumes between seasons in which cash crops are grown.

Grow crops that are more tolerant to drought

Finally, it may be time to put in some research and look into whether it is possible to plant crops that are more resistant to drought. These crops will reduce the amount of water needed for them to grow.

A drought tolerant crop can either be naturally so or genetically modified. Either way, it’s a solution that is worth looking into for many farmers.

Need assistance with land stewardship?

Soil stewardship and water conservation are a vital part of successful farming. These practices are one of many in Midwest Land Management and Realty’s toolbox of ways to ensure the farmers and landowners we work with are successful at the end of the day.

Midwest Land Management provides professional farm management to farmers across Northwest Iowa, but also in Minnesota and South Dakota. Our services are available to farmers and landowners in those states.

We would love to hear from you about what your goals are for your farm. Reach out to learn how Midwest Land Management can help you meet those goals.