Ways to Conserve Water in Agriculture

Harvesting Rainwater and Soil Conservation Methods Save Water for Crops


On average, 70 percent of fresh water is used to produce food and other ag products.

By Anita B. Stone

There are many ways to conserve water in agriculture. If you farm or homestead, your success depends on it.

The U.S. Geological Survey reports that farmers use 138.92 billion gallons of water per day for irrigation, livestock care, and aquaculture. This does not include the thousands of homesteaders who rely on water for crops, livestock and daily requirements. The goal of farming water is to plan as responsibly as possible, especially being proactive during periods of drought, which come upon everyone each year. As the population grows and more food is required, better ways to conserve water in agriculture will become as critical as the water itself; hence farming water as effectively for the homestead is to have water when you need it and where you need it.

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Machinery and irrigation equipment overshadows an ever-shrinking water supply and will become more evident as time passes. An efficient irrigation system depends on the type of crops, the soil, and climate. To save significant amounts of water it is preferable to adjust irrigation systems to work in harmony with natural rainfall, rather than set an automated schedule, allowing the water to flow regardless of the weather. Using water flow meters helps measure and control the amount of water being used in irrigation. Being savvy with technology can make a major difference in water usage. Numerous weather apps provide up-to-the-second precipitation reports. Coordinating the reports with any irrigation system saves water, which will save money as well as reduce wear and tear on systems. The swishing and rotating of sprinkler systems not only creates excessive water which remains on leaves but also wastes gallons of water because these systems are not geared toward conservation. An area of soil, needless of water requirements, sometimes receives a wasteful abundance of H2O.

Soil management is a major way to conserve water in agriculture. Depending on the soil type across the farm landscape, the mass absorbs, holds the water and transmits it to the crops. There are numerous possibilities, tests, amendments, and land styles to conserve water within the soil content. Farmers may consider using compost, conservation tillage and cover for crops. Management depends on the type of soil being used.

Millions of gallons of water are being wasted because of runoff. Runoff occurs within poor soil management and over-watering. A positive solution may be to recycle runoff because it saves water and enhances ecosystems. Agricultural runoff contains chemicals that infiltrate groundwater and pollute rivers, streams and larger bodies of water.

When farmers do not have to treat the water prior to reusing it, the recycling process is less expensive. Organic farming methods that reduce or get rid of chemicals are a major way for farmers to conserve water by taking out a costly step in the recycling method. Organic farmers also lower the water-use footprint by preserving the quality of water. Not all organic farming methods reduce the amount of water used, but conservation-minded farmers should consider the options. Organic farmers find that reducing runoff helps to reduce the need for crop irrigation benefits in drier areas. Improving soil structure and water retention capacity through practices such as a multi-annual crop rotation, appropriate plant selection, and organic manure use are determined by each homesteader. Where salinity is an issue, the retention of more trees and natural vegetation with deep roots maintains a lower water table and avoids salt being brought to the surface Mostly, organic farming restricts synthetic fertilizers and chemical synthetic pesticides, as well as growth enhancers and antibiotics for animals, thereby reducing the risk of these chemicals finding their way into lakes, streams and rivers.

During periods of low rainfall or in low rainfall areas, water shortages can be a significant limitation to farming productivity. A lack of water can mean devastation to some properties while poor water quality can restrict the type or inhibit farm productivity.

To avoid a lack of water and devastation to crops, consider ways to conserve water in agriculture that increase efficiency, use timing, and storage options.

Today billions of gallons of water in certain land areas, including sections of what were once flowing liquid, have turned to dust. Many third-world countries have devised methods to draw water from reservoirs, lakes, and streams. We can do the same.

Farm water supply can be extremely variable. Planning is important to consider all available sources and how much of it can be stored. Knowing the volume of a farm dam is useful for estimating how long the dam will last during prolonged dry periods. Farmers can change drought situations by farming water as though it were a storage bin from which to withdraw its contents when needed. It is also important to note that the amount of runoff might not match the amount of water that can be stored. For example, once a water tank or dam fills, the water overflows and goes back into the environment.

Resourceful homesteaders and are dependent on having sufficient access to water and knowing how to use the options. Water quality affects plant growth, livestock health, what makes good soil, farm equipment, and domestic use. The quality is variable, depending upon weather conditions. Evaporation increases the concentrations of salts while a flush of water dilutes salts, but may increase sediment and fertilizers or nutrient runoff. Monitoring should be done regularly and more frequently in summer or in periods of moisture stress. Water scarcity is already a critical situation in farming in many parts of the globe. Physical water scarcity is where there is not enough water to meet demands, including requirements for ecosystems to function effectively. Dry regions often suffer from physical water scarcity. It also takes place where water seems abundant but where resources are over-committed.

This can happen where there is an overdevelopment of infrastructure, usually for irrigation. Symptoms of physical water scarcity include environmental degradation and declining groundwater. Symptoms of economic water scarcity include a lack of infrastructure with people often having to fetch water from rivers for domestic and agricultural uses. Reportedly more than two-and-one-half billion people live in water-scarce areas. This does not include drought areas or seasonal dry spells.

On the average, 70 percent of fresh water withdrawn from rivers and groundwater is used to produce food and other agricultural products. Farm water may include water used in the irrigation of crops, water used to leach harmful salts from agricultural fields and water used for environmental management.

Competition for water resources is much more intense because there are nearly seven billion people on the planet. Reportedly more than two billion people currently live in water-scarce areas. Their consumption of water-thirsty meat and vegetables is rising, and there is increasing competition for water from industry, urbanization and biofuel crops. By the year 2050, the proportion of the population facing stressed water supplies is expected to increase. To avoid a global water crisis, farmers will have to strive to increase productivity to meet growing demands for food, while industry and cities find ways to use water more effectively. Farm water may include water used in the irrigation of crops, water used to leach harmful salts from agricultural fields and water used for environmental management.

Farming First coalition believes that adopting sustainable agricultural practices reduces water use per bushel. Research, innovation, and access to improved technologies, seeds, and improved irrigation techniques are essential to increasing the efficiency of water use. Agriculture needs to be part of watershed management. Therefore, farmers must be involved in making crops more resistant to stress and cropping techniques more water efficient. Farming water requires becoming proactive and protecting water quality across the landscape in a wise design.

Rain water harvesting can create a sustainable system that provides water needs from rainfall alone. In some places, fertilized soil does not hold water well. You apply fertilizer one year, but not the next and the plants may die. But if you apply manure and nitrogen fixing plants once, the plants do well year after year. Farming water wisely increases and ensures a healthy farm, including environmental and physical characteristics and a variety of uses.

Farm water needs vary. For their production systems, dairy requires approximately 50%, while cropping needs are a high 96%. Potatoes scale to 70% and 40% of vegetables are required. Meat and wool production average approximately 96% usage. Grapes and fruit crops require considerable planning and designing of production systems. The basic planning steps to farm water are to determine the use for which the water is being used, calculating how much water is needed for each use and in which capacity it can be readied.

Growing less thirsty crops and investing in more efficient irrigation technology, states such as California are saving billions of gallons of water each year, the equivalent of three dams to 20 dams, according to a new report. Farmers, who shift away from water-intensive crops, invest in high-tech watering systems and irrigate only at specific times in the growing cycle. They save between 600,000 and three-to-four million acre-feet of water each year. One acre-foot is roughly 326,000 gallons and represents the amount of water needed to cover one acre of land to a depth of one foot. The bottom line is that if we continue to be water smart, then being water short will not be one more concern. 

Do you know of other ways to conserve water in agriculture? Tell us your suggestions!

Originally published in Countryside September/October 2013 and regularly vetted for accuracy.


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