By Tom Driscoll, Director of NFU Foundation and Conservation Policy

Extreme precipitation is a serious concern for farmers as the climate continues to change. In many areas, downpours will be concentrated earlier in the year. Standing water and moist soil will work against farmers trying to get into the fields in time for crop insurance planting requirements and ideal yields.

While the installation of surface ditch or subsurface “tile” effectively addresses drainage issues exacerbated by climate change, the practice has serious downsides, both immediate and long-term, for farmers. There is substantial cost associated with purchasing materials and designing and installing drainage systems. Depending on the ultimate conveyance and characteristics of the ground in question, drainage systems may also trigger permitting concerns with legal or administrative costs. Further, the cumulative effect of many farmers choosing to increase drainage can contribute to water quality problems and flooding downstream. Perhaps most importantly to the farmer, drainage might send water downstream that, if instead retained in the soil, could help cope with dry spells later in the season or ongoing droughts, both of which are also expected to increase in frequency and intensity as the climate continues to change.

Before turning to drainage, farmers observing increased early season precipitation can consider practices to increase the health of their soils. We’ve discussed a number of these practices, such as rotational grazing and cover crops, here on the Climate Column. These practices can help many farmers on many different types of ground increase the ability of their soil to absorb and retain moisture, avoid the cost of drainage, hedge against yield-impairing dryness, and even save on inputs by encouraging soil fertility. Considering alternatives to installing drainage systems will also help farmers take part in efforts to protect water quality and mitigate damaging floods.

Have you observed increases in early season precipitation? Have you experienced interference with planting due to excessive water in the fields? Would you consider soil health practices to mitigate this in the future? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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