The drought monitor report as of February 6 shows conditions essentially unchanged from last week. Much better than a year ago at this time. The six to ten-day outlook (February 13 to 17) indicates near normal temperatures and precipitation. The eight to fourteen-day outlook (February 15 to 21) indicates a 33 to 50% chance of above leaning below normal for temperatures and a 33 to 40% chance of leaning to above normal precipitation.
A major topic of interest in our area, especially with Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira in our area, is conserving groundwater. We are dealing with a declining aquifer in Western Kansas and even without the Quivira issue, have to come to terms with how to manage water use. Today, instead of looking at the specific issue of the aquifer, let’s look at the broader issue of conserving soil water for crop production. What can we do to better keep the soil moisture we have and better utilize this resource?
· Improve the soils ability to store water and decrease evaporation from the soil surface. Minimize or if possible eliminate tillage. The goal is to improve soil structure by increasing the number of continuous macropores to allow better infiltration of water and to allow it to move more deeply into the soil profile. If you can eliminate tillage, two benefits occur over time. You will increase organic matter in the top several inches of soil, improving soil structure and water holding capacity. By allowing crop residues to accumulate on the soil surface, you create a vapor barrier to reduce evaporative losses. You also keep the soil cooler which decreases the energy for evaporation. Finally, the residue absorbs the impact of rainfall which decreases water erosion and runoff. Another consideration, depending on soil moisture, it to consider cover cropping. This can be an expensive, complicated plan with a mixture of grasses and broadleaves or something as simple as oats or rye. This increases organic matter, residue cover, and protects the soil.
· Do whatever possible to create as stress free environment for crops, including pest control. This can be easier said than done but healthy crops not competing for resources increase water use efficiency dramatically. Included here is also paying close attention to crop nutrient needs by knowing what’s in the soil, what a realistic crop yield goal is, and if you are in areas tending to be acid, sands, know your pH. We are speaking here of more than just N, P, and K but all sixteen essential nutrients.
· Finally, for today, rethinking what to plant, what cultivars to plant, when to plant, and plant density. There isn’t space here for a detailed list but for example: plant earlier maturing varieties; planting earlier or in some cases later, to avoid the worst periods of stress for seed production; consider planting more feed or silage crops, depending on your operation.