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NMSU publication gives strategies for farming during drought conditions

As incidences of drought have become more recurrent in the Southwest over the past decade, farmers across New Mexico need to be prepared to effectively cope with it in order to remain productive and profitable.

Tractor on parched soil
Southwest farmers continue to face drought conditions. (NMSU photo by Norman Martin)

Since farming in a drought situation is not business as usual, New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service has released a new publication entitled "Argonomic Principles to Help with Farming During Drought Periods" to give agricultural producers some suggestions to help them develop strategies to cope with drought.

"New Mexico's climate is normally hot and dry, but drought conditions and higher-than-average temperatures can make farming even more challenging. A variety of strategies can be used to ensure that your farm remains productive during drought," said John Idowu, NMSU Extension agronomist, who co-authored the publication with Extension specialists Mark Marsalis and Robert Flynn.

Idowu's research and Extension activities are focused on sustainable field crop production and soil health management in New Mexico.

The publication addresses aspects of planning for drought conditions, such as good planning, scaling back on acreage to be planted, moving away from water-intensive crops, selecting early maturing and drought-tolerant varieties, using reduced tillage practices, watching out for salinity of soil, and properly scheduling irrigation.

A key point of the strategy is to plan only for the water that you have or are assured of receiving.

"An important consideration is to analyze the economics of the situation since it is different from normal years," Idowu said. "The focus should be to optimize your economic returns with the water that is available. Don't be too ambitious by planting more acreage than your allocated water can support, hoping that the situation will improve through in-season rainfall."

Drought is a time to match the water allotment with the size of the area to be planted.

"Calculate the amount of acres that your water allotment can successfully support and limit your production to that acreage," Idowu said. "Know what the maximum water use for your crop is during the peak water demand time of the season and adjust acres down to meet this demand."

How the water is applied is also critical.

"If possible, schedule your irrigation during early morning or late evening to avoid evaporation losses," he said. "However, scheduling irrigation during these times may not be practical for some production systems due to crop type or logistics of operation."

Because available water is scarce during a drought, there is a tendency to irrigate without also thinking about leaching the accumulated salts from the soil surface.

"It is important to note that a build-up of salts can occur on the farm if insufficient water is applied to leach out the excess salts," Idowu said. "Salt accumulation can affect yields and crop quality. To avoid salt accumulation in the surface soil, you should know the salinity level of your soil and the quality of your water that will be used for irrigation and then calculate the leaching requirement along with the crop demands for water."

Selection of the crop is also a factor to consider, such as moving away from water-intensive crops, and selecting early maturing and drought-tolerant varieties.

"Forage crops such as alfalfa and corn have very high demands for water," Idowu said. "In situations with limited water, it becomes difficult to raise these crops with a high level of output. An alternative is to transition temporarily to crops that consume less water and are more drought-tolerant, such as sorghum and millet."

The publication has a table that lists various crops, the critical period for irrigation and the crop's level of sensitivity to drought.

"Early maturing and drought-tolerant varieties can also help growers cope with drought," he said. "It is good to carefully select crop varieties that will mature earlier in the growing season. Although varieties that mature later tend to have higher yield, during a drought the yield advantage may be lost due to insufficient water."

How the land is worked can also help offset the impact of drought on the plants.

"Compared to conventional plowing and disking, reduced tillage has been shown to help conserve soil moisture and improve soil health," Idowu said. "Reduced tillage emphasizes a reduction in the depth and total area of the farmland that is being intensively tilled."

Many reduced tillage options are available to farmers, such as strip-till, no-till, zone-till, chiseling and permanent beds. The type of reduced tillage that will fit each farming operation will vary.

"Some reduced tillage methods may involve acquiring new tillage tools," Idowu said. "Therefore, reducing tillage should be seen as a long-term strategy to conserve moisture and improve soil quality."

To learn more about these topics, the full publication Guide A-147 may be obtained from NMSU's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences website at http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_a/A147.pdf or by ebook at http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/ebooks/_a/welcome.html.