Stay Ahead of Illinois Drought Conditions: 5 Effective Drought Management Strategies for Your Farm

by Brynna Sentel
10 minutes read
Soybeans growing on dry soil.

Illinois agriculture is a pillar of the state’s economy. Agriculture commodities generate over $19 billion annually, not including the earnings of agriculture related industries like processing and manufacturing. The fertile Illinois soil and favorable climate create the perfect conditions for Illinois’ number one crop, soybeans. Yet, the favorable climate that farmers depend on will continue to be impacted by climate change.

Temperatures are projected to rise, and farmers can expect to see longer stretches of dry days during the growing season. Farmers will be at risk of reduced crop yields, although the severity of losses could be mitigated by implementing the proper drought management practices.

Five effective management strategies include adopting new crop varieties, investing in new machinery, soil management, monitoring the forecast, and risk management strategies. Discover how to mitigate anticipated drought conditions in Illinois and protect your farm.

1. Adopting new crop varieties

In the future, it is possible that some of the challenges presented by climate change could be mitigated through improvements in crop genetics. The possibilities of breeding and biotechnology have increased tremendously throughout the past four decades and it is hard to predict exactly what kind of advances will be made in years to come.

As climate change continues to present new challenges for farmers, it might not be a stretch to predict new and improved stress tolerant crops. This might include soybeans that are more suited to undergo heat stress, pests, and excessive precipitation.

The seed industry has already experienced a demand for crops that can handle unpredictable weather and pest situations. As time goes on, seed companies will only be able to expand their knowledge on how to better develop genetics that will maintain high yielding crops in stressful situations.

Technological advancements can be hard to predict, but to meet food demand in a changing environment we can hope that we’ll see seed companies expand their breeding and biotech capabilities.

2. Investing in new irrigation technologies

Overall, precipitation is expected to increase in the future, which might suggest less risk for drought, but actually means quite the opposite. Precipitation is expected to become more extreme with heavy rainfall events followed by long stretches of dry days. This will put crops at risk for short term, but extremely devastating droughts due to the higher temperatures. This suggests that there might be an increasing demand for irrigation systems.

Illinois typically has a humid, temperate climate which causes soil to have high moisture containing capabilities. Irrigation has been unnecessary for a large portion of the state. In recent drought years, Illinois has had an increase in irrigation system installments, and this is a trend that will likely continue.

Improvements to existing irrigation systems might also be something worth investing in during the upcoming years to conserve water. Farmers should consider technologies like precision irrigation, drip irrigation, or soil moisture sensors to optimize water usage. These technologies will be important to avoid depleting a natural resource, but also to maintain a relatively low water bill.

3. Soil Management

More frequent and intense rain events associated with climate change have the potential to increase soil erosion and nutrient runoff, especially when coupled with intensive tillage practices. Better soil management strategies are going to be essential to maintain the fertility and water-holding capacity of our Illinois soil. Some of these practices include practicing no-till or conservation tillage, using cover crops, and balanced nutrient management strategies.

  • No-till farming: No-till helps maintain a layer of crop residue on the soil surface which can reduce water evaporation and prevent soil erosion. The continuous presence of soil residue encourages the formation of aggregates and the growth of soil microorganisms. Soil aggregates are soil clumps that are formed when soil particles bind together. It is important for soil health because it allows air, water, and roots to go through the soil.
  • Cover crops: Using cover crops can have several benefits to manage drought conditions and the sustainability of agricultural systems. Planting cover crops throughout a field can prevent soil erosion because the roots establish deep into the soil in to hold it in place during the months when a cash crop, like soybeans, wouldn’t be productive.

One example of a cover crop that could be beneficial before soybeans is winter cereal rye. It is crop that can establish in the fall and provide weed suppression, if not tilled, during the following growing season.

Cover crop mixes could also be a good option. There are many examples of cover crop mixes that can accomplish various goals related to managing dry growing seasons. Consulting with local experts, like ISA agronomist, can provide valuable insights into selecting mixes that will be well-suited for your particular goals and region.

  • Nutrient management: Balanced nutrient management strategies can be extremely beneficial to soil health and plant vigor during dry spells. Adequate levels of essential nutrients like Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K) can help maintain overall plant health and resilience.

It is also important to note that nutrients should be properly supplemented at the right source, right rate, right time, and right place. Following these 4 R’s can reduce nutrient losses, which is money wasted. You can implement nutrient management strategies by testing soil to understand soil nutrient requirements without undersupplying or oversupplying adequate nutrients.

4. Monitoring Forecast

Monitoring weather patterns is going to be an increasingly valuable tool for soybean farmers to proactively manage drought conditions. This will allow farmers to make informed decisions regarding planting dates, crop selection, and agronomic practices that align with expected weather patterns.

Farmers can utilize weather forecasts to optimize irrigation scheduling and water management practices. By aligning irrigation activities with predicted dry spells, farmers can ensure water is being used efficiently and minimize drought stress put on soybeans during dry conditions.

It’s important to keep in mind that farmers should be receiving the most up-to-date and accurate forecasting information. Some reputable sources could include national meteorological services or agricultural extension services.

5. Risk Management Strategies

Developing a risk management strategy is vital to any farming operation, especially in the upcoming years with more risk of serve weather events. Financial protection in the form of crop insurance provides a safety net for farmers in the event of severe yield losses that could be caused by drought conditions.

Another risk management strategy could be a diversification of income sources. Diversifying income can help farmers reduce their vulnerability to drought. This could be done through crop diversification, livestock integration, or even alternative enterprises. Farmers can spread their risk and decrease their dependence on a single crop. Planting a variety of crops that are less susceptible to yield losses could provide a more reliable income.

Thinking About the Long-Term Effects of Unexpected Drought Conditions

Drought can be a complicated phenomenon that can be hard to predict. It can be subtle, and can take weeks, or months to feel the full effects of long-term inadequate rainfall. Some agricultural practices can make land more vulnerable to being affected by drought conditions. By adopting the proper agriculture practices farmers can mitigate the effects of drought.

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