When drought hits, you can blame Mother Nature — but management practices also come into play.
“I don’t want to say that it doesn’t matter what happens with rain and that all drought is man made because of bad management,” said Vermont grazier Abe Collins.
“That’s a very extreme position. Sometimes it doesn’t rain, and no matter what you’ve done, there isn’t water to grow stuff.”
But there are things you can do to manage soil moisture during a drought year, Collins said at the Organic Alberta conference in late February.
“The things I’ve found that have got me through drought are plant diversity, deep depth on rooting systems, lots of living plants left, residual litter, and adequate fertility in your soil.”
The first step is making sure you have “100 per cent covered soils 100 per cent of the time.”
“Bare soil is a burn victim,” he said. “If we’re maintaining our land like that, we’re maintaining our loved one in a hospital bed with no skin.”
Covered soil helps maintain microclimates for bugs, plants, and root systems, while reducing evaporation from the soil.
“The difference between a bit of duff and bare soil is profound,” said Collins.
“You can have 120° soil on a 90° day that’s just baking the life within it and evaporating moisture.”
Life in and on the soil is the key — but it needs to be diverse, he said.
“We need diverse life in and on the soil almost year round and to really focus too on diversity of rooting structures — sinking as much underground as we can,” said Collins.
“That’s having cool- and warm-season species that can grow through the year and having adequate fertility to give us growth at the time that’s best suited to those plants.”
A study done in the U.S. found a seven-species cover crop mix yielded three times more biomass than a monoculture, he said.
“That’s huge. Why would we plant monocultures when these are some of the outcomes in low rainfall?” said Collins. “I’ve never gone wrong with diversity. Every time I add one species or 10 more, things get better. That’s the beauty of diversity.”
Diversity of plants can also help “unlock” fertility in the soil, said Collins.
“It’s amazing how much locked-up minerals there are in soils. Soil tests will come back and say that you need a lot of fertilizer, and yet there’s often 30,000 or 40,000 pounds of potassium, for example, in the top six inches, but it’s all locked up,” he said.
“The more diversity, the more that these nutrients can become available.”
Having adequate fertility in the soil is essential if you hope to get through a drought, he said.
“Soils with low fertility waste tremendous amounts of water,” said Collins.
“If you have crops in the soil without adequate nutrients to grow crops, you will waste water.”
And don’t feel bad if those nutrients come from a bag, he added.
“When I try to turn land around that’s severely depleted, I don’t feel embarrassed about using any kind of fertilizer that is available and allowable to get that system rolling.”
But even in a drought year, you don’t have to compromise your land or your cattle performance to improve soil moisture on your farm.
“When I listened to experts tell me what I could and couldn’t do, they told me I had to make compromises between finishing animals and growing topsoil,” said Collins.
“You’re either going to get animal performance and harvest every bit of grass that grows, or you can take care of the soil.”
But finishing cattle, growing topsoil, and achieving water security are “the same thing.”
“It’s the exact same management for those three things,” said Collins. “That’s liberating for me, because I don’t like to compromise if I don’t have to.”