For the first time in quite a few years, 2015 is shaping up to be a little on the drier side. We started and finished seeding earlier than most of my father’s career, and precipitation has been mercifully light. Although there is a lot of growing season ahead of us, this may be the drier year we have been waiting for.
Despite the drier bias, the effects of excess moisture still linger. Roads continue to deteriorate, with countless holes and failing sections. Fields are still full of water, with every low spot filled to the brim. Every water body is at capacity, unable to absorb any sudden precipitation event. These are problems that will not just go away, and will haunt us for years. But perhaps the most worrisome situation of all is the frightening, creeping white powder, slowly spreading across our fields, choking out any life it touches… salinity. All of this really began back in 2008.
That year, we started seeding in late April into dry soil. With no rains right through May, we finished seeding very early and seeded through every low spot we could find. As the spring came to an end, rains began to come, with a relatively cool summer to go along with them. The result was a fantastic crop by the time we reached August. It was then that things changed.
We went to the lake one weekend just before the beginning of harvest. We had winter wheat pretty much ready to go, but, seeing as how it wasn’t quite ready to combine, we took one final weekend off before the long grind of harvest began. Our last day at the lake was a beautiful, warm and sunny day, perfect for being out on the water. But as we started toward home, we saw a cloud that made me sweat.
A black, rolling wall was coming right at us, and as we finally reached home, we were hammered by a storm unlike anything we had seen in some time.
The damage? Well, there was thankfully no hail, but we received anywhere from 3.5 to 6.5 inches of moisture in that one storm. Harvest was a nightmare, with a count of over 25 stuck combine occurrences, and a crop that had pretty substantial quality loss.
Ever since that fall, we have been wet, with varying degrees of successes and failures. 2009, 2012 and 2013 were all very successful years, with lots of moisture and cool weather, but not to the point of extreme excesses. Certainly, we lost a lot of crop in those years to flooding as well, but we did quite well despite that. Conversely, 2010, 2011 and 2014 were either disasters or close to, with 2011 as the year we failed to plant much of a crop at all, with only 25% going in the ground, and most of it being lost. Indeed, for several now we have been stuck in a wet weather pattern, with hammering rains that hit like a wall of bricks seemingly every time a cloud shows up.
Finally, it seems that things are changing. We began and finished seeding very early this year, with excellent seeding conditions and lots of subsoil moisture, but very little precipitation, thankfully. While there is a lot of growing season ahead of us, it seems that 2015 is going to be a different year from the previous several.
Let’s be clear, though – there is no doubt that we are in a precarious situation. Any significant moisture event could quickly plunge us right back to a year ago. One storm could change everything. Our roads are becoming increasingly difficult, and expensive, to maintain; as pesky muskrats, emboldened by the acres of water surrounding some roads, dig their way underneath the roads. Numerous sections of roads in the area are in serious danger of becoming impassable with our heavy trucks, which we cannot go without to supply our drills and empty our combines.
But, roads are fixable, sloughs will diminish, and drier weather will return. The cycles of climate will return us to drier weather, just as they did after the 1950’s and the 1970’s, along with countless other wet cycles over the millennia. What drier weather may not fix is salinity.
Soil salinity is excess salts in the soil, generally made up of combinations of sodium and sulphates or chlorides. Plants can’t access the nutrients they need for life, as the sodium elements in the soil offset the nutrients they need. Trouble begins for plants long before the ground turns white; but once that happens, any life is strangled out. That level of salinity doesn’t just go away, either. It will linger on for my lifetime, and my children’s, and maybe even beyond that. At this time, there is no easy fix for this problem.
My father has watched salinity encroach on his land, and his neighbors’ land, off and on throughout his career. The move away from summerfallow and cultivation to continuous cropping and no-till helped enormously, stopping the growth of that creeping white death in its tracks; but it was also drier at that time, from the late 70’s through the early 90’s. Growing crops keeps water from collecting on the land. As water builds and then slowly evaporates away, it often leaves behind a salty residue. Salts also come from the parent material, pushed up by excessive groundwater. But lately, even the good land has developed salinity, which has rarely been seen before .
Lately, there has just been so much water that we can’t grow enough plant biomass to soak up the salts. As the salts build up, crops struggle even more, and it becomes a bit of a cycle. It is a common problem in irrigation areas, which just goes to show how much water we have gotten in the past few years!
Is the problem with us, the farmers? Are we working our land too hard? My estimation is that no, that is not the case, as I have seen salinity grow even in the native prairie community pasture just north of my home, choking out the mixed grasslands. This is a problem with the soil itself, with the weather patterns we are experiencing.
What can we do about it? I’m really not sure. This isn’t one of those issues with a simple answer, something that the government can come in and regulate away, or even something that we farmers are necessarily even mismanaging. What we need, I believe, is a change to drier weather. And for the next wet weather cycle that rolls through in ten, twenty or thirty years from now, we need a plan. And drainage may just have to be a part of that plan. Soil amendments may be an answer as well; applications of gypsum have helped in some scenarios. We are currently experimenting with that.
If we are moving towards a drier weather pattern, that will help remediate many of the issues we are currently facing. I want to be clear, too, that we are far from being the worst-affected area from this weather. Many farmers have lost much, with water even threatening their yards. I consider us lucky to have avoided that scenario. It could be much, much worse. Nevertheless, excess moisture has become a serious problem, and it is about time it starts to fade away.