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Drought Resistant Soil

Drought Resistant Soil

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Published by: Greater Charlotte Harbor Sierra Club on Jul 18, 2010
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ATTRA is the national sustainable agriculture information service, operated by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through a grant from the Rural Business-Cooperative Service, U.S.Department of Agriculture. These organizations do not recommend or endorse products,companies, or individuals. NCAT has offices in Fayetteville, Arkansas (P.O. Box 3657, Fayetteville,AR 72702), Butte, Montana, and Davis, California.
ByPreston SullivanNCAT Agriculture SpecialistNovember 2002
D
ROUGHT 
ESISTANT 
S
OIL
Introduction
With severe drought an all-too-common occur-rence, some farmers turn to irrigation for a solu-tion. Irrigation may not be feasible or even de-sirable. Fortunately, there are management op-tions that can increase the soil’s ability to storewater for plant use. Soil can be managed in waysthat reduce the need for supplemental wateringand increase the sustainability of the farm. Thispublication details some of the strategies fordrought-proofing soil and the concepts that sup-port them. Any worthwhile strategy for droughtmanagement optimizes the following factors:Capture of a high percentage of rainfall (in-filtration)Maximum storage of water in the soil for lateruse (water holding capacity)Efficient recovery of stored water (plant root-ing)Several important soil factors affect water man-agement—including soil texture, aggregation,organic matter content, and surface groundcover.
Texture
Texture
refers to the proportions of sand, silt, andclay present in a given soil. A
sandy loam
, forexample, has much more sand and much lessclay than does a
clay loam
. A
loam
soil is a morebalanced blend of sand, silt, and clay. Most soilsare some type of loam. Texture is an innate char-acteristic of the soil type. Unlike the other fac-tors discussed here—aggregation, organic mat-ter, and ground cover—texture cannot bechanged through agronomic practice. By know-ing the innate texture of the soil, however, thefarmer can select and adjust practices that opti-mize moisture management.Agronomy Technical Note
Table of Contents
 Abstract: To minimize the impact of drought, soil needs to capture the rainwater that falls on it, store as much of thatwater as possible for future plant use, and allow for plant roots to penetrate and proliferate. These conditions can beachieved through management of organic matter, which can increase water storage by 16,000 gallons per acre foot for each 1% organic matter. Organic matter also increases the soil’s ability to take in water during rainfall events, assuringthat more water will be stored. Ground cover also increases the water infiltration rate while lowering soil water evaporation.When all these factors are taken together the the severity of drought and the need for irrigation are greatly reduced.
 
//D
ROUGHT
R
ESISTANT
S
OIL
P
AGE
2
 
Soil moisture-holding capacities correspondingto texture designations are found inTable 1.Notice that although the plant-available water ishighest in the loam to clay-loam textures, the
to-tal
water goes up with increasing clay content.This is because clay has more total pore space tohold water, but some of these pores are so smallthat the water is held too tightly for plants toextract. Sand has less total pore space to holdwater, but most of the water it can hold is avail-able to plants. Finally, water evaporation fromsandy soils is faster than from clay soils. As anyfarmer knows, sandy soils dry out more quicklyafter a rain and plants growing on them showdrought signs sooner compared to finer-texturedsoils. Consequently, it is wise to put drought-tolerant crops on the most drought-prone soils,and drought-sensitive crops on finer-texturedsoils.
Aggregation
Soil
aggregation
refers to how the sand, silt, andclay come together to form larger granules. Goodaggregation is apparent in a crumbly soil withwater-stable granules that do not disintegrateeasily. Well-aggregated soil has greater waterentry at the surface, better aeration, and morewater-holding capacity than poorly aggregatedsoil(2).Plant roots occupy a larger volume of well-aggregated soil; better rooting increases thedepth and area plants can reach for water. Theseare all positive attributes for drought resistance.Well-aggregated soil also resists surface crusting.The impact of raindrops causes crusting onpoorly aggregated soil by disbursing clay par-ticles on the soil surface, clogging the pores im-mediately beneath, sealing them as the soil dries.Subsequent rainfall is much more likely to runoff than to flow into the soil (Figure 1). In con-trast, a well-aggregated soil resists crusting be-cause the water-stable aggregates are less likelyto break apart when a raindrop hits them. Takenote, however, that
any
management practicethat protects the soil from raindrop impact willdecrease crusting and increase water flow intothe soil. Mulches and cover crops serve this pur-pose well, as do no-till practices which allow theaccumulation of surface residue.A soil’s texture and aggregation determine airand water circulation, erosion resistance, loose-ness, ease of tillage, and root penetration. How-ever, while texture is an innate property of thenative soil and does not change with agriculturalactivities, aggregation can be improved or de-stroyed readily through our choice and timingof farm practices.
 
Table 1. Soil texture’s effects on soil moisture.(1)
TextureDesignationTotal Water Inches/footAvailable Water Inches/foot
 
SandSandy loamFine sandly loamLoamSilt loamSandy clay loamClay loamSilky clay loamClay1.21.92.53.23.53.73.83.83.9
 
0.91.31.72.02.12.12.01.71.5
Figure 1. Effects of aggregation on water and air entry into the soil.Derived from: Land StewardshipProject Monitoring Toolbox(3)
 
//D
ROUGHT
R
ESISTANT
S
OIL
P
AGE
3
Some practices that destroy or degrade soil ag-gregates are:Excessive tillageTilling when the soil is too wet or too dryUsing anhydrous ammonia, which speedsthe decomposition of organic matterExcessive nitrogen fertilizationExcessive sodium buildup from salty irriga-tion water or sodium-containing fertilizersAggregation is closely associated with biologi-cal activity and the level of organic matter in thesoil. The gluey substances that bind componentsinto aggregates are created largely by the vari-ous living organisms present in healthy soil.Therefore, aggregation is increased by practicesthat favor soil biota. Because the binding sub-stances are themselves susceptible to microbialdegradation, organic matter needs to be replen-ished to maintain aggregation. To conserve ag-gregates once they are formed, minimize the fac-tors that degrade and destroy them.The best-aggregated soils are those that havebeen in long-term grass production (4). A grass sod extends a mass of fine roots throughout thetopsoil, contributing to the physical processesthat help form aggregates. Roots continually re-move water from soil microsites, providing lo-cal wetting and drying effects that promote ag-gregation. Roots also produce food for soil mi-croorganisms and earthworms, thus generatingthe compounds that bind the aggregates intowater-stable units. Additionally, a perennialgrass sod provides protection from raindrops anderosion while these processes are occurring.This combination of factors creates optimal con-ditions for establishing a well-aggregated soilunder a perennial cover. Conversely, croppingsequences that involve annual plants in exten-sive cultivation provide less vegetative cover andorganic matter, and usually result in a rapid de-cline in soil aggregation and organic matter. No-till cropping requires less manipulation of the soiland retains a surface mulch; it is quite successfulat promoting good aggregation on annuallycropped soils.
Organic Matter and Water-holding Capacity
Soil holds water according to its texture, as shownin Table 1. However, the level of organic matteralso determines how much water a soil can hold.Arkansas soil scientists report that for every 1%of organic matter content, the soil can hold 16,500gallons of plant-available water per acre of soildown to one foot deep(5). That is roughly 1.5quarts of water per cubic-foot of soil for eachpercent of organic matter.Figure 2shows therelationship of organic matter to water-holdingcapacity.In addition to holding water, organic matter alsoimproves aggregation. As soil organic matterbreaks down, large amounts of glues andslimes—the cementing agents of aggregation—are produced by microbes in the decompositionprocess. A good demonstration of this is pro-vided inTable 2.The increasing manure rate shown inTable 2led to improved infiltrationthrough the increase in soil aggregation.
Ground Cover
The most apparent benefit of maintaining groundcover on soil is erosion resistance. However,
30
 Figure 2.
 Available water content with increasingsoil organic matter (6).
60504020100
   %   W  a   t  e  r   b  y   V  o   l  u  m  e
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Percent Organic Matter by Weight

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