The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service reports that agriculture accounts for 85% of the national water consumption. Water is an essential input for farming and agriculture and is crucial to food security. Per the World Bank report, 20% of the total cultivated land is run by irrigated agriculture, contributing 40% of the total food produced globally.
However, drought is one of the persistent problems hounding farmers and ranchers. In the United States alone, at least 40 states are already bracing for water shortages in 2024 (as of this writing), making water conservation and sustainable management more critical than ever.
Farmers can do their part in conserving water through the following technologies:
Since its invention, drip irrigation has revolutionized farming, particularly for areas facing drought or arid conditions.
Unlike traditional sprinklers, drip irrigation delivers water and nutrients directly to the plant’s root zone in sufficient drips and at the right time. In this way, each plant receives the nourishment it needs. When the plants you have planted get the water and nutrition they need, it leads to higher-quality crop yields. The reason is that drip irrigation’s consistent watering cycle reduces plant stress, which leads to healthy plants bearing healthier and more bountiful produce.
Because of how drip irrigation delivers water to plants, it reduces the likelihood of water loss due to evaporation and the growth of weeds that will otherwise compete against crop plants for water and nutrients.
Planting drought-tolerant crops
The global farming and agriculture industry is one of the biggest water consumers, using up to 70% of the world’s freshwater supply. But with climate change, drought has become an increasing threat in several parts of the world.
Farmers in drought-affected regions have adapted to this phenomenon by planting drought-tolerant crops instead of relying on more water for irrigating their farms. These crops are designed by traditional modification or genetic mutation to use less water while still producing the necessary yields. These drought-tolerant crops are highly desirable, especially in drought-prone countries, as they contribute to food security and ensure everyone has enough food.
Collecting and storing rainwater
While some farms might not receive bountiful rain all year round to provide for their irrigation needs, it doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from rainwater. When there’s a downpour, these farms collect and store as much rainwater as possible to conserve their water supply.
Reclaiming water (which is different from recycling water in a way that the water has been used or recycled when it is put to some purpose) can reduce the stress that farms can apply to their surroundings. If it rains regularly and farms have a water purification system for irrigation, it can be a significantly helpful method in conserving water.
Smart water management is about how water is delivered, when, how much, and how often. Overwatering or underwatering crops is especially a problem in farming. Farmers use irrigation scheduling to determine the appropriate duration and frequency of watering crop plants to avoid either issue. Farmers regularly monitor weather forecasts, soil moisture, and plant conditions to adjust their irrigation schedules accordingly.
This proactive approach to irrigation helps optimize water use and ensure that crops receive sufficient water at the right time for optimal growth. It also helps reduce water waste and other potential adverse effects on plant health and productivity.
Dry farming is another farming approach to fight against the effects of drought. It does not rely on irrigation; instead, it depends on moisture from the soil stored from the previous rainy season. Dry farming is a low-input, location-specific method of crop production within the limits of the climate.
While this method may receive little or no irrigation at all, it emphasizes making the most of the soil’s moisture content and adapting crop choices and farm management practices to match the local climate. Dry farming aims to attain sustainable crop production with only minimal water use.
As the name implies, rotational grazing is a process that involves moving livestock between fields to help promote pasture regrowth. Good grazing management practices can help enhance the field’s ability to absorb water, therefore reducing water runoff. As a result, the pastures become more drought-resistant.
Rotational grazing also offers other benefits for water conservation, as it can increase the soil’s organic matter, improve fodder coverage, and increase water retention in the soil. By doing so, rotational grazing ultimately contributes to sustainable livestock management and better use of water resources.
Compost and mulch
The combination of compost (decomposed organic matter used as a fertilizer) and mulch (material spread on the soil’s surface to prevent the soil from becoming dry) can be highly effective in improving soil condition and fertility.
Compost is added to the soil prior to planting, while mulch is applied around plants. Both compost and mulch can be produced on-site on the farm, creating a cost-effective method for farmers to improve soil health and quality. Compost enriches the soil by providing nutrients and organic matter. Conversely, mulch conserves the soil’s moisture, prevents weeds from growing, and maintains regular soil temperature.
Conservation tillage involves farming methods to minimize soil erosion, water conservation, and soil improvement. These techniques create a protective layer on the soil surface that helps to retain moisture. Conservation tillage can be particularly useful in areas with limited water availability or frequently experience drought.
By reducing or eliminating conventional tillage methods that disturb the soil, conservation tillage helps maintain the soil’s structure and its nutrients and organic matter. Conservation tillage also reduces water runoff and prevents erosion.
Runoff water reuse
By reusing runoff water, farmers may also be able to save water. Using treated water that has either been generated on the farm or obtained from a nearby wastewater treatment facility to help grow crops is known as agricultural water reuse. These could include non-food and food crops raised for human or animal consumption. This reuse has the advantages of decreasing nutrient-rich water runoff from farms, limiting nutrient pollution of sensitive water bodies, and providing nutrient-rich water for crop propagation.
Farmers that use recycled water for irrigation can lower the cost of importing water, minimize the need for freshwater, and develop a local water supply that is dependable and sustainable. Recycled water can occasionally be of greater quality than the water that farmers have traditionally had access to, such as surface waters that are subject to various kinds of contamination because they have been treated to fulfill the requirements for their intended purpose.
In agriculture, water conservation has become increasingly crucial for the sustainability of farming and the overall well-being of the environment. By adopting some of the above mentioned techniques, farmers can optimize water use, maximize healthy crop yields, and help advance long-term sustainability in farming and agriculture.