Thursday, July 18, 2024
HomePasture HealthForageSoil quality critical to help plants weather heat stress from climate change

Soil quality critical to help plants weather heat stress from climate change

According to findings published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, the soil’s capacity to hold water will be critical in determining the success of farms and ranches in adapting to prolonged heat stress due to climate change. While the study focused on 30 years of data on four major U.S. crops – corn, soybeans, cotton and wheat – the results are illuminating for graziers as well.

The analysis drew on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s county-level data from 1981 to 2015. Researchers looked at precipitation rates and accumulation of average daily temperatures over a crop’s growing season, known as growing-degree days. They also factored in soil variations, including water-holding capacity, organic matter texture (the percentage of sand, silt and clay), pH, slope, erodibility and soil-loss tolerance.

Growing-Degree Days and Water Holding Capacity Have the Most Impact on Productivity

The results of the analysis showed that growing-degree days wer the most important climatic factor, while water holding capacity was the most influential soil property for crop-yield variability.

Since we can’t immediately impacting growing-degree days, our alternative is focusing on soil health. According to Debjani Sihi, first author of the study and assistant professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences. “The take-home message is that farmers facing added heat stress for their crops may want to proactively focus on the water-holding capacity of their soil.”

The Solution? Soil Health Principles

The soil health principles listed here are linked to more information about the hows and whys of making it happen. If you’re focusing on water holding capacity, check out Principle #3 for some good pointers.

1. Keep soil covered.
2. Minimize soil disturbance.
3. Manage for a diversity of plants.
4. Keep live roots in the soil.
5. Integrate livestock.

Another really good option, with the potential for sequestering carbon and cooling the climate too, is to add a dusting of compost to your pastures. As we’ve discussed in numerous OP articles over the years, this improves soil structure, increases water holding capacity and feeds the microbes that feed your plants so that you increase production. It’s a win-win-win.

If you need a testimonial to the power of compost (beyond those I’ve shared in other articles), consider one from someone living in the desert. Our acre-lot here in Tucson was pretty bare until we covered the soil with compost. Now, just a few years later, we can see improved soil structure when we dig into the sandy soil, and we’ve more than doubled the amount of native vegetation in our yard. Plus, this happened at the same time that the region was experiencing the worst drought in 1,200 years.

If it worked for me, it could benefit you too. For more on how to work with compost to cool the planet and increase your success, start here:

Resources for Carbon Farming to Cool the Planet

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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.

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