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What Are The Effects Of Drought On Agriculture?

photograph of a dry corn field with text overlay 'What Are The Effects of Drought on Agriculture?'

The agricultural sector is an important contributor to the economy of the United States in many ways, from promoting food and energy security to providing jobs in rural communities. Agriculture is heavily impacted during droughts, with water scarcity posing challenges for farmers in cultivating crops and providing sustenance for livestock. The ramifications of drought on agriculture are far-reaching, leading to widespread devastation of crops and livestock.

Fortunately, there are methods farmers can adapt to confront these challenges head-on. In this resource, we will explore the impacts of drought on agriculture and strategies farmers can employ to navigate these challenges effectively.

Production Losses

Droughts have a significant economic impact on the agricultural sector, primarily resulting in crop failure and pasture losses. In fact, regular droughts can decrease crop yields by up to 30%, leading to increased prices for consumers. Indirectly, droughts can also affect downstream industries like food processors, as well as reduce the demand for inputs such as fertilizer and farm labor.

To mitigate these costs, government disaster assistance programs may be implemented. Farmers should also consider implementing various strategies, such as:

  • Opting to plant drought-resistant crops

  • Add mulch to preserve moisture in the soil

  • Test and monitor soil health

  • Identify harvest priorities by consistently scouting fields

  • Adjust watering schedules according to precipitation forecasts

Decreased Water Availability

The reduction of water availability in soils leads to substantial decreases in crop and livestock productivity. Moreover, drought conditions can result in diminished surface and groundwater resources, affecting water availability and escalating the expenses associated with crop irrigation and livestock watering.

It is worth noting that once normal precipitation resumes, soil moisture levels typically recover before surface and groundwater supplies are replenished. However, decreased water availability for agriculture is a huge problem that will increase in magnitude as global temperatures continue to rise.

Fortunately, there are a few conservation agriculture strategies that farmers can implement to prepare for limited water sources during a drought. These include:

  • Improving irrigation systems or adding irrigation pipelines

  • Adding cover crops, which cool the surface and therefore can reduce the amount of water lost due to natural evaporation

  • Implementing no-till practices

  • Adjust watering schedules based on precipitation forecasts 

Pests and Diseases

When accompanied by soaring temperatures, drought greatly amplifies the incidence of pests and diseases that primarily impact forage, crops, and livestock. Many plant-feeding insects tend to survive very well under drought conditions. Pests that thrive in droughts include grasshoppers,  gypsy moths, spider mites, and aphids.

Managing pests and diseases on drought-affected plants and animals poses substantial challenges. To mitigate increased incidences of pests and animal diseases, it is crucial that farmers consider using preventative pesticides and insecticides and pay close attention to their crops so that they can detect incidences of pests early.

Crop Failure & Pasture Losses

Drought has various adverse effects, including crop failure and pasture losses for livestock. Insufficient rainfall can result in inadequate pollination of crops, particularly specialty ones like fruits and vegetables that heavily rely on insect or animal pollinators. Due to their heavy dependence on rainwater, crops are highly susceptible to drought conditions as they lack access to deeper water reserves. The agricultural sector, including livestock farming, bears the brunt of drought, with pasture losses being a significant consequence.

There are a few tactics that farms can implement to mitigate the potential of major crop failure and pasture losses during drought conditions:

  • Implement drought-resistant crops

  • Maintain crop diversity

  • Conserve water by implementing new irrigation systems and other water-conserving tactics

How can farmers prepare for drought?

Climate and weather variability have a profound impact on agricultural production. To enhance the sector's resilience to drought, it is crucial to implement effective drought early warning systems. These systems enable the agricultural sector to prepare for and tackle the challenges posed by variability, safeguarding its productivity and sustainability.

Fortunately, there are many free resources available for farmers to monitor and prepare for drought, including the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS). Along with drought maps and monitoring, they provide helpful advice and assistance to farmers experiencing drought.

COMING SOON: Drought risk reports for any U.S. property will soon be available in LandGate’s free property reports and our LandApp tool. 


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