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Are You Creating Your Own Drought?

Healthy soil holds onto water. Every 1% increase in organic matter results in as much as 25,000 gallons of available soil water per acre.How you manage your farm can have a big effect on how your land responds to rain, or drought. The trip a raindrop takes from the cloud to the soil can be highly impacted by cropland and pasture management. Raindrops that fall on unprotected soil cause tiny explosions, dislodging soil particles in every direction. This is the first step of erosion.

Rain that falls on hard, bare ground will run off before it can soak in, or infiltrate. In this case, the land is no better off after a rain than it was before, because no water has soaked into the soil where it can be used to grow crops and forage. With no plant roots to hold it together, fertile topsoil will be washed away, further degrading the land’s ability to be productive.

Raindrops can be captured by plants. Plants slow rainfall impact above ground and their roots create channels for rain to soak into the soil. Dead plants become part of the soil, known as organic matter. The higher the amount of organic matter in your soil, the more water your soil can hold. If your farm has bare ground and low drought resiliency, it most likely has poor soil health. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) can help you to develop a conservation plan and apply conservation practices to improve your farm’s soil health and resilience to drought and other natural disasters.

Four Soil Health Principles (or Pillars): Minimize Distrubance, Maximize Soil Cover, Maximize Biodiversity, Maximize Continuous Living RootsSoil health is the ability of your soil to function as a vital, living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and people. Only living things can have “health,” so seeing soil as a living, breathing ecosystem reflects a shift in the way we view and manage our soils. Soil isn’t a lifeless growing medium, it is the home of billions of bacteria, fungi, and other organisms that together create an intricate ecosystem. This ecosystem can be managed to support plants and animals by cycling nutrients; absorbing, draining and retaining rainwater for use during dry periods; filtering and buffering water to remove pollutants; and providing habitat for the soil organisms to flourish and diversify to keep the ecosystem functioning well.

Maximizing soil cover keeps the soil cooler to reduce stress to plants and soil organisms, reduces evaporation rates, and increases the amount of water entering the soil profile from rainfall and irrigation.

The Four Pillars of Soil Health are:

  • Disturb Soil Less
  • Keep Soil Covered
  • Diversify Plant Species
  • Keep a Living Root Growing throughout the Year

Help your soil help you by implementing the four pillars of soil health. Your soil will thank you, your crops and animals will thank you, and your wallet will thank you. Contact your local NRCS office to begin conserving your soil health, or visit our Soil Health webpage.