Water scarcity is the biggest problem of the 21st century
Droughts have become an increasingly pressing issue as climate change continues to worsen, with arid and semi-arid regions around the world facing more frequent and severe water shortages. With global temperatures rising, we as farmers and ranchers must develop sustainable solutions to address this problem. Improving soil health through the utilization of soil organic matter, biochar, cover cropping, and no-till agriculture has been shown to be a promising approach to increasing soil water retention and mitigating the impacts of droughts. Water Retention is one of the highest priority areas of study for many regenerative agriculture consultants and the first step to helping an operation future-proof itself.
Soil Organic Matter
Soil organic matter, consisting of dead plant matter and microorganisms, is crucial for soil health and water retention. Research has shown that increasing soil organic matter improves soil structure, water-holding capacity (WHC), and fertility. For example, a study published in the journal “Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment” found that a 1% increase in soil organic matter can lead to an increase of 20,000 to 30,000 gallons of water per acre held in the soil. By improving soil organic matter, farmers and landowners can not only improve their crops’ resilience to droughts but also enhance the soil’s ability to retain nutrients, which in turn leads to healthier and more productive crops.
Biochar, a carbon-rich substance created through the process of pyrolysis, has also been found to increase soil water retention. Biochar has a porous structure that allows it to retain water and nutrients, and also improves soil structure and fertility. A study published in the journal “Soil Science Society of America Journal” found that biochar improved soil water retention by up to 10% in some cases and that the effect was long-lasting, lasting for several years after application.
Cover cropping, the practice of growing crops between cash crops to provide soil protection and improvement, has also been found to be effective in increasing soil water retention. Cover crops act as “living mulch” that can protect the soil from erosion, reduce evaporation, provide habitat for soil microorganisms, and improve soil structure. A study published in the journal “Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment” found that cover cropping can increase soil water storage by up to 25% compared to bare soil.
No-till agriculture, the practice of non-disturbance of soil and leaving crop residue on the surface to protect and improve soil health, has also been found to be effective in increasing soil water retention. No-till farming can reduce evaporation and runoff, conserve soil moisture, and improve soil structure, leading to more efficient water use by crops. A study published in the journal “Agronomy Journal” found that no-till agriculture can increase soil water storage by up to 40% compared to conventional tillage methods.
In pasture management, mulching can play an important role in increasing water retention and reducing the impacts of drought. Covering the soil surface with a layer of organic material in off seasons, such as straw, leaves, woodchips, and old hay will help retain soil moisture and improve soil health. As an added benefit as the mulch decomposes over time, it can also improve soil structure and fertility, which can further enhance the soil’s ability to hold water.
To summarize, the incorporation of soil organic matter, biochar, cover cropping, no-till farming, and other methods aimed at increasing soil water retention has proven to be an effective strategy in mitigating the impacts of droughts. The benefits of these practices go beyond just combating droughts, as they also lead to an improvement in soil health, increased crop yields, and reduced use of water and other inputs. With a growing population and increasing pressure on our water resources, it is vital that we continue to invest in and support these regenerative agricultural practices. A lot of our work as regenerative agriculture consultants focuses on helping operations become more drought resistant. Let us all work towards creating a more resilient and sustainable food system for future generations.