Irrigation is important in farming because drought tends to sneak up on you.

In 1950, weather expert, H.P. Gillette, described drought as a “creeping phenomenon.” When you think about it, that’s a pretty accurate statement. Drought tends to sneak up on you. “Drought is different than other natural hazards,” explains Mark Svoboda, a climatologist and director of the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) at the University of Nebraska, and one of the co-founders, as well as a former author, of the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor. “Tornadoes hit hard and leave, floods or hurricanes can last days, but then they’re gone, too. But droughts…they can take months to develop and then last for months or even years…and drought has a much larger spatial and temporal footprint.” In AgAmerica Lending’s latest article, we look at drought and why irrigation is important to agriculture. Read a summary of the article below.

Drought Defined

Defining drought has historically been a challenge. Then, in 1985, climatologist Donald Wilhite (who founded the National Drought Mitigation Center) and Michael Glantz, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, published a research paper calling for a set of standardized definitions for drought that would allow those involved in predicting and mitigating the event to speak the same language.

In the paper, even Wilhite and Glantz acknowledged that recognizing a drought, along with measuring its severity and human/animal impact, was tough. But they gave it a go, exploring every drought definition out there and finally developing the following four general categories:

  • Meteorological Drought – A significant deviation from the long-term mean precipitation.
  • Agricultural Drought – A deficit in the soil moisture necessary to support plant and crop health.
  • Hydrologic Drought – A major deficit in the supply and availability of surface and groundwater over a year or longer.
  • Socio-Economic Drought – The effects that a weather-related water supply shortfall has on the supply and demand of an economic good; for example, water, forage, food grains, fish, or hydroelectric power.

In addition to these four, which are still used today, Svoboda says there’s “a new kid on the block” when it comes to drought classifications – Ecological Drought.

“We’re still working on a consensus definition…it’s kind of been forgotten and is usually lumped in with Agricultural Drought,” says Svoboda. “This one is about the natural environmental response to drought, and it’s a critical component, especially to those of us who work on drought impacts.”

Predicting Drought

Figuring out ways to mitigate drought issues, and monitor and plan for drought, is what the NDMC is charged with.

What is mitigation exactly? In the context of drought, Svoboda says mitigation is defined as any steps or proactive measures that can be taken in advance of drought to reduce the risk and effects when it happens.

“That could be anything from monitoring, risk assessments, and policy writing, to conducting seminars and workshops for the media and general public,” explains Svoboda. “Our goal with drought risk management is to be proactive instead of reactive.”

Weekly Monitoring & Boots on the Ground

One of the primary reports generated by the NDMC and partners at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor.

“To me droughts are about how people are impacted at the local level,” says Svoboda, “and also about timing, timing, timing…especially when it comes to agriculture. How much farmers feel the effects of the drought has everything to do with what part of the growing, harvesting, or grazing period they’re in at the moment.”

“Think of the weekly drought monitor as tons of information integrated into one depiction for one moment in time,” explains Rich Tinker, Meteorologist & Drought Expert at the Climate Prediction Center (CPC), an agency of the National Weather Service, and also one of the rotating Monitor authors.

“No one piece of the data is 100% of the answer,” adds Svoboda. “But the drought monitor helps us not cry wolf too early or call it off too early.”

More Measurements: By the Month, By the Season

Along with the U.S. Drought Monitor’s weekly monitoring, the CPC produces monthly and seasonal drought forecasts under the direction of Tinker.

“The goal of the monthly and seasonal reports is to forecast how a drought is likely to change over a long-term period. Our job is to begin with what’s ‘normal’ and identify when it becomes not normal,” explains Tinker. “The longer the period is atypical, the more difficult it becomes to budge something like a drought.”

While the weekly Drought Monitor is used mostly to help city planners and policymakers make decisions about managing water usage and potential needs for fire control, Tinker says the seasonal and monthly Drought Outlook is a tool that farmers often follow, just like they keep tabs on weather forecasts. Such tools let farmers know how much of a role irrigation will need to play in the coming days, weeks, and months.

Times Have Changed, So Has Forecasting

“Today, with stronger computing and better modeling, some new indicators have come on board which have helped a lot,” explains Svoboda, “but at the end of the day, all measures have their place and are utilized in helping us determine the current conditions.”

USDA meteorologist, Brad Rippey, points out that forecasting may be a science, but Mother Nature has the last word.

“There are groups at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) and the CPC trying to improve seasonal to inter-annual forecasting skills. They’re studying the global picture looking at events at the poles…at the equator,” says Rippey. “These days, there’s pretty much unchecked warming around the globe…it’s affecting the jet stream and that affects everything in the sky above your farm.”

Rippey says meteorologists and climatologists have arguably less atmospheric predictability to work with than ever before, and it’s an ongoing battle trying to increase forecast skill level and improve computer modeling.

“If we could provide a perfect forecast a year out…farmers could change out the crops they plant,” notes Rippey. “But of course, seed decisions are often made a year in advance. At the present time, the best long-lead outlooks have perhaps 70% confidence attached to them…and that doesn’t include day-to-day extremes such as hot spells and flash floods.”

Irrigation, and Other Steps You Can Take to Prepare

Agriculture is a high-risk business and a bad drought can take a crop or a herd down quickly. Svoboda says the NDMC advocates for every farmer to have his or her own drought mitigation plan. Irrigation options should be at the forefront of such a plan.

“By nature you are going to deal with hazards all the time and you must plan and prepare for them,” says Svoboda. “But in a lot of cases, cities, counties, and farmers haven’t put pen to paper in the way of a formal drought plan. When you get into crisis mode it helps. You can’t stop the drought…but you can definitely reduce the impact on your operation.”

He says windbreaks are essential—“we see too many being removed these days”—and low-till or no-till practices as well as the use of cover crops are all excellent ways to help protect topsoil.

Above all, Svoboda says, get educated about drought and continue to do so.

“Local Extension agents and USDA Service Center experts are terrific resources,” says Svoboda, “and the agency websites have all kinds of valuable information, as well as guides like “Risk on the Ranch” to help you better prepare.”

To learn more about drought, visit these links:

To learn about different types of irrigated systems, including drip irrigation, read AgAmerica’s report on the latest in farming choices in irrigation.

As the nation’s premier land lender, AgAmerica Lending is there for farmers and ranchers in good times and bad. Like you, we have a deep respect for the land and understand how conditions like drought can affect you as an operator. When it’s time to make improvements to protect what you’ve worked so hard to build, or if you’re looking to expand your current operation, we’re here to partner with you. Contact us to discuss a custom financial solution that will help you accomplish your long-term goals.