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Prepare for a Water-Smart Future

September 2, 2013
By: Fran Howard, AgWeb.com Contributing Writer
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With extreme weather conditions expected to become more common, crop losses from drought will likely continue to increase, says the National Resources Defense Council.

Many of last year’s crop losses could have been prevented had producers used water-smart farming strategies, according to a study released last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The Federal Crop Insurance Program paid out a record $17.3 billion in 2012 crop losses, and 80 percent of the payments were spurred damage caused by drought, heat and hot winds, the analysis shows. The Upper Midwest and Great Plains states were hardest hit. With extreme weather conditions expected to become more common, crop losses will likely continue to increase, NRDC argues. And some producers and scientists agree.

"What the last three to four years should point out to people is that we have moved into a period of extreme weather conditions by year and growing season," says Jerry Hatfield, laboratory director and supervisory plant physiologist with USDA’s National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Iowa.

Looking at Iowa data, Hatfield says that variation in annual precipitation is continuing to increase, and long-term trends in corn yields show that a pattern of variation from year to year is starting to emerge.

"I think we are pushing the limits of our production systems," Hatfield says. "The piece we need to be prepared for is how do we make sure our soils are positioned to absorb, store and release moisture." Producers, in particular, need to prepare.

"A lot of producers are asking, ‘How do I cope with climate change?’" says Hatfield, who has not ruled out a return to Dust Bowl-like conditions sometime in the future.

Brian Fuchs, climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb., says that prior to recent times, indigenous people would move out of drought areas due to water constraints, but today populations continue to shift into areas like the Southwest, where dry conditions are becoming more severe, putting even more strain on water systems.

"If I were a farmer in New Mexico who had senior water rights I wouldn’t have much trepidation about the future," says Fuchs. "But if Santa Fe or Albuquerque wanted to offer me money for my rights, it might be more profitable."

For those without senior water rights, though, the situation is dicey. Fuchs notes that the Colorado River water compact was formed during an abnormally wet period in history, and flows on the river have not been as strong since, yet the river continues to serve seven states and Mexico, all with growing water demands.

NRDC’s report, Soil Matters: How the Federal Crop Insurance Program Should Be Reformed, makes a case for revamping farm subsidies based on water conservation practices. Water-smart farming practices include cover cropping, conservation tillage and improved irrigation scheduling.

Cover cropping builds healthy soils and increases biodiversity on farms dedicated to major commodity crops, while no-till farming is a beneficial soil moisture management technique.

"The protective stubble serves as mulch that retains soil moisture, suppresses weeds and increases a field’s capacity to grow high-yield crops. In 2010, corn farmers who used no-till were 30% less likely to file a crop insurance claim than conventional tilling corn farmers," NRDC says in a press release.

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