A look at the dry, yet wet complexity of farming in Illinois
When we talk about drought-proofing farm operations in Illinois, we’re faced with an interesting and mind-bending conundrum: All four seasons in Illinois are getting wetter, but we’re more likely to have longer, drier periods. Say what?
“We’re about 5 inches wetter than the turn of the 20th century,” says Illinois State Climatologist Trent Ford. “But we have more extreme rainfall events and drier periods in between. Overall, we see shorter agricultural droughts, poorly timed for 30 to 60 days.”
As anyone in the ag business knows, if those 30 to 60 days are at the wrong time of the growing season, that’s all it takes to significantly impact a crop. Timed differently, a short-term drought may not be completely destructive, but unfortunately, Ford says those scenarios aren’t decreasing at all.
Case in point: The last long-term drought we had was in 2012, but in July 2022, Champaign County only had 0.5 inches of rain. That’s a yield impact, but not a huge game changer.
Climate Change Concerns for Illinois Farmers Across All Seasons
It’s why Ford and other climate experts call the situation in Illinois complicated. “We continue to see increases in winter and spring precipitation, with not much change in summer,” Ford explains. And on the flip side, “If 12 inches of rain comes in three days and not 12 days, that makes a difference too.”
It’s very likely that we will see summers getting warmer across Illinois, which translates to more evaporative demands and more water use in crops. “If the temperature increases and evaporation increases, then you have less soil moisture,” he says.
Seasonality matters too. If spring is wetter, then you come into summer with more soil moisture. If spring droughts are less frequent, but summer droughts are happening more often, then how impactful is that summer drought? Added to that, says Ford, a great deal of uncertainty surrounds summer rainfall projections: “You get nothing; your neighbor gets 4 inches.”
How Illinois Farmers Can Protect Crop Yields from Drought
The difference in protecting your yields against drought starts, literally, from the ground up. “People who implemented soil and water conservation measures like tillage and cover crops are more successful in a drought,” says Ford.
Building that protection begins by increasing organic matter. “The more organic matter you have, the more soil water is available. Soils are more resilient with that higher content,” says Duane Friend, climate specialist, University of Illinois Extension.
“To keep organic matter present, you really have to decrease tillage.” This creates more soil structure so the soil acts as a sponge, but also creates more spaces for the water to go into.
Friend admits the idea of light brown, untouched soil is hard for farmers to imagine. “Growing up on a farm, there’s nothing like the smell of tilled earth, and there’s also a sense of accomplishment,” he says. There’s just something about seeing the dark, almost-black lines of tilled soil against the residue and trash left behind the combine.
Still, research says soybeans in particular can benefit from reduced tillage. A nearly 30-year South Dakota State University study showed that across rotations, soybeans on average yielded 1.8 bushels per acre more under no-till management than under tillage.
“There’s a fine line of profitability and risk,” comments Friend, who also says you don’t have to change the entire operation at once. “Try a small section of acreage and monitor. I have seen situations after three or four years where there’s a marked difference in soil structure and resiliency.”
Invest in Cover Crops for Long-Term Results
Cover crops are another excellent strategy for drought-proofing, both Ford and Friend advise. The myth is that cover crops don’t pay off, when experts say the real truth is that cover crops rarely pay off in the first year or two – it’s that third or fourth year where you’ll really start seeing a difference.
As North Dakota farmer Justin Zahradka said in the study Cover Crop Economics: Opportunities to Improve Your Bottom Line in Row Crops, “Look at cover crops as an investment rather than a cost.”
More applied research is underway, and Friend is optimistic that additional data and metrics will come soon. Crop insurance, options and other tactics can help with financial management. Technology innovations in the form of soybean genetics are also an avenue for drought proofing, but Friend cautions farmers not to make any of these your entire plan.
Gene stacking and plants with more resilient root systems are great near-term tactics, but Friend advises, “I hope we don’t just depend on the technology. We need to be prepared; we need to manage risk.”
In the meantime, an intentional drought-proofing strategy can help protect your yield and your bottom line. Many tools are out there to help refine your plan. Friend suggests starting with the Midwest Cover Crops Council selector tool, which walks you through finding the right mix for your Illinois farm. Forward thinking strategies are the key to protecting your farmland and your crops.
“Droughts may be more intense and may come on a bit faster, but maybe we have fewer overall,” Ford says. “Drought protecting your farm is still very important. The variability we see in the yields is really telling.”