Fighting Drought and Flood With Soil Health

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Author: Jenny Schlecht | Published: August 13, 2017

The Upper Midwest is in the grips of a historic drought, pretty close on the heels of several historic floods.

Both extremes cause devastating, expensive problems for agriculture. But agronomist Andrea Basche thinks an answer to improving outcomes for droughts and floods might be the same.

“It might surprise people that soil can be a part of the solution,” Basche says. “Soil can offset some of the impacts related to drought and flood.”

Basche was the lead researcher on a report entitled, “Turning Soils into Sponges: How Farmers Can Fight Floods and Droughts.” Practices like no-till farming and using cover crops or perennials to maintain year-round soil coverage could be keys to managing moisture levels, her research suggests.

Basche received a doctorate in agronomy and sustainable agriculture at Iowa State University in 2015 and is now a Kendall Science Fellow in the Food & Environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non profit science advocacy organization.

“I really got excited about agriculture while learning about climate change impacts,” Basche explains.

With climate change comes more extreme weather, like the drought currently gripping most of North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.

Basche’s research looked at existing studies in soil health to analyze how agricultural practices could change outcomes during extreme conditions. The study focused on Iowa, because of Basche’s familiarity with the state and because it is representative of Midwestern agriculture.

The study looked at no-till techniques, cover crops, alternative grazing systems, crop systems integrating livestock grazing, and perennial crops, and provided estimates for what would have happened had those techniques been used during recent floods and droughts in Iowa.

“And our model predicts that by shifting the most-erodible or least-profitable regions of Iowa to systems using perennial and cover crops, farmers could reduce rainfall runoff by up to 20 percent in flood events and make as much as 16 percent more water available to crops in droughts,” the study says.

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