Do farmers, ranchers and gardeners talk more about the weather or about water these days? I think there is huge concern about water. What to do with a lack of water is the question.
In this column I have referred to water several times. Today, I want to put out a few reminders and refer to some strategies that might help manage to get enough water to get through dry spells.
In the old days, Prairie farmers would summer fallow, that is, plow and disk a field and keep “black,” not seed a crop, and not let weeds grow to use up water. Thereby, water could be “stored” for a season or a year in the hope that a crop could be successfully grown.
Now, a cover crop is planted and turned in for nutrients and for the water holding capacity. The soil, itself, can store/conserve water. The cover crop can serve as living mulch on the surface of the soil.
In gardens, compost can be added and mulches of straw, hay or some manufactured membrane can be placed to conserve moisture by not allowing evaporation.
If hay is used, the best variety is swamp hay (natural sedges) or Reed’s Canary Grass, or Meadow Brome because they grow in wet soils and any seed in the hay is not going to find favourable sprouting conditions in a garden, which is well drained.
Biodegradable fabric (plastic like in texture) extruded from corn is a good choice if you can’t get hay.
Production can be increased for your crops by having a properly designed windbreak of trees planted. Recent reports suggest 10-15 per cent increase. This is mostly due to the wind being slowed down and therefore not lifting the moisture out of the soil.
Some plants evolved and grow in partial shade. So a few trees around can prevent excessive evaporation, however, the soil needs to get enough warmth and light to grow the garden plants.
On larger, commercial scale operations, irrigation of hay, grain and other crops will likely require irrigation. Irrigation gets complicated when water sources need licensing and development.
Suppliers of irrigation equipment can provide proper design information. Efficient sprinklers that don’t cause excessive evaporation and compaction of the soil (droplets hitting the ground hard!) are a good idea. Drip irrigation is very effective and uses less water. Lately, some literature suggests that burying pipes and watering the roots is a good way to conserve water.
There is a new Water Sustainability Act in BC, which replaces the old Water Act. Two game changers in the legislation will seriously affect water users.
One is the licensing of groundwater. Dugouts and wells need to be licensed. The first user to apply gets the highest priority for using water before others. The second game changer is the dramatic increase in the price you have to pay for using the water. Conserve so you pay less for your use.
David Zirnhelt is a member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association and chair of the advisory committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching program which started at Thompson Rivers University in Williams Lake this January.