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Planning to limit losses to droughts

It's too late to do anything for this year's crops, but farmers hurt by two years of drought should begin to act now to reduce their susceptibility to future drought.

Short of installing irrigation systems, there are options that can give crops a little relief during blistering, dry summers. These include planting early, using early-maturing varieties and departing from clean tillage systems.

Jim Thomas, agricultural engineer with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said leaving residue on cropland helps preserve moisture in the soil, especially early in the growing season. Subsoiling and deep tillage also help.

"Deep tillage helps build better subsoil moisture supplies than that soil normally would have," Thomas said. "A good subsoiling is almost like an irrigation. It supplies subsoil moisture for crops another week or two into a drought, where that same soil without the deep tillage would run out of water."

Another way to hold moisture in the soil is to leave residue, but limit growing vegetation. "Don't let the weeds get too big in the spring," Thomas said. "Burn these down early with herbicides. This gives the crop a big advantage by reducing to a minimum the competition for moisture. Don't let the weeds take moisture away from your crop."

Residue on the soil surface also helps get more water in the ground. "Without cover, rainfall tends to slick off cleared farmland, but rainfall moves across the land a little slower with miniature dams made of sticks and leaves," Thomas said.

Alan Blaine, Extension agronomist, said one of the best things farmers can do now is look back at this dry growing season to see what varieties performed well.

"Some varieties showed they could really take the heat, while others fell on their face," Blaine said. "Make some hard decisions for next year on variety selections."

Blaine also recommended doing any field preparation in the fall, making it possible for farmers to plant some crops as soon as they can get in the fields in the spring. "Avoid spring tillage if possible, because when that early window opens, you need to plant, not plow," Blaine said. "Take advantage of the dry weather this fall and till now."

Blaine said soybean growers have planted early and used early-maturing varieties to try to minimize the effects of drought for several years. Because of this, some farmers will harvest at levels better than what might be expected under current conditions.

"That tells me we've got to keep on doing what we've been doing. We're going to get that late July rain one day and hit a home run on yields," Blaine said.

While they are planting earlier than ever before, Mississippi soybean farmers need to keep moving up their planting dates, Blaine said. This year's soybean crop was planted between April 25 and May 10, typically considered early, but it actually was late considering the conditions experienced this year.

"I'd rather deal with Mother Nature's curve ball early than late," Blaine said.

Mississippians are not in the habit of keeping track of water supplies, but a second summer of drought is taking its toll on the underground water stores.

Most of the state gets its water from underground aquifers. A few areas use surface water for their supply, but most municipalities dig wells to serve the needs of communities, industries and agriculture.

Jim Thomas, agricultural engineer with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said aquifers store water in sand and gravel layers confined between layers of clay or solid rock. These geologic formations overlap each other at varying depths and extend for miles.

"Aquifers store water in the soil, sand and gravel in sufficient volume that when you drill a well, you can get enough water to sustain an adequate supply for industrial, agricultural or domestic use," Thomas said.

These aquifers typically recharge themselves from rain, rivers and watersheds in their area. But drought since the start of last summer is affecting their ability to refill.

"We're not getting much recharge at this time. We're withdrawing more than is being put in," Thomas said. "It's not something that has occurred this summer, but is a carryover from a year and a half without adequate rain."

In Mississippi, the only aquifer that historically has had trouble keeping up with demand is the one that supplied Tupelo. Thomas said when this started years ago, the city began to draw water from the Tombigbee River and dedicated the aquifer to smaller communities in the area.

Ground and surface water each have their advantages. Except in a drought, surface water is replaced quickly by rainfall, while ground water reservoirs take longer to recharge. Ground water is stored in tremendous quantities, is refilled by sources in addition to rain, and doesn't suffer from evaporation that surface waters face. Ground water also often requires less treatment before it can be used.

While the water supply in Mississippi is not at risk today, Thomas said some farmers tapping the alluvial aquifer under the Delta have had to set their pumps a little deeper to reach the water they need.

"We're blessed with abundant ground water supplies in this state," Thomas said. "At some point, we'll probably need to develop more surface water supplies."

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