Currently in West Texas, we are in one of the worst droughts since the 1930’s and 1950’s. We are now entering the third year of this drought. Recently, I did some research on the drought of the 1930’s and 1950’s. In my hometown of Plainview, Texas (average annual rainfall=20.17 inches), our rainfall for 2011 and 2012 was 5.63 and 10.48 inches respectively. In comparison, the two lowest years of precipitation during the 1930’s was 10.16 and 13.75 inches in 1933-1934 and for the 1950’s was 11.29 and 10.39 inches in 1953-54.
Although we have had our share of “Haboobs” over the past few years, we have had nothing that compares to the dust storms of the 1930’s and 1950’s despite the fact that less rain fell in this current drought. Why is this? I believe that farmers’ adaptation of several conservation practices has helped prevent such terrible dust storms. These conservation practices include the use of cover crops, strip till and CRP.
The use of cover crops such as wheat, rye and oats has been a major factor in preventing terrible dust storms comparable to 1930’s and 1950’s. A high percentage of famers in west Texas use some type of cover crop. This practice alone has helped to greatly reduce wind erosion of soil in my area.
Using cover crops almost exclusively relies on herbicides to control weeds. Therefore, with current resistance problems, growers must incorporate the use of residual herbicides and alternating chemistries to ensure good weed control. Also, growers must be aware of the potential bridge that cover crops can be for insects such as mites in corn and thrips in cotton. Thus, it is important to terminate these cover crops before the emergence of the primary crop to ensure problematic insects do not move directly from one crop to the next.
Strip-till has become a widely adapted practice to help erosion. In many cases, strip-till involves the use of a cover crop to prevent wind erosion and then creating a strip of deep tillage in the seed zone of the primary crop. This helps to ensure better water infiltration and good soil-seed contact at planting. Also, many growers are placing a portion of their fertilizer in this strip, which helps reduce fertilizer loss due to run-off and may increase fertilizer efficiency by being placed directly in the root zone.
In dryland situations, strip-till is used to reduce plowing in the winter and spring and go to a minimum tillage system while still creating a ridge on the soil and preserving crop residue to prevent a slick soil surface that is highly susceptible to wind erosion. Without crop technologies such as glyphosate-resistant crops, many of these new practices could not be adopted.
Last and certainly not the least significant practice is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Throughout many areas of the West, highly erodible land has been placed in CRP, and it has helped to reduce the impact of soil erosion by planting perennial grasses on these lands. While it does not appear any relief from the drought is yet in sight, we can all be thankful for the efforts of growers and everyone else involved in agriculture to improve conservation and prevent the reoccurrence of the dust bowl years.