John Combest

Flooded Fields: For Farmers, Planning is Key

Throughout the year, farmers keep a watchful eye on the sky, regularly monitoring weather reports in anticipation of the many unexpected challenges mother nature may throw at them. As the climate continues to change, farmers around the world have faced catastrophic flooding. From the rice paddies of India to the corn fields of Nebraska, farmers know the key to bouncing back is planning ahead and implementing tailored solutions for their unique field environments.

“A lot of flooding can be averted with proper management,” says Walt Bones, a fourth-generation farmer managing Hexad Farms, homesteaded by his great-grandfather in 1879, near Sioux Falls, SD.

Along with his two brothers, a brother-in-law, and three nephews, he farms nearly 7,000 acres of corn and soybeans as well as participates in a local dairy cooperative and manages a beef cattle breeding operation. Without planning, Bones says, “then it is like pouring water onto a saturated sponge.”

While crop loss is the biggest threat of excessive water on a field, how flooding will affect a field depends on several factors including the area’s climate and whether the water is stagnant or flowing.

Rushing Flood Waters

When rivers crest and flood waters are racing, the topography of their fields may change. There can be soil erosion where waters have washed away the top soil, or the opposite can happen. There can be a new layer of soil, or silt, deposited unevenly where flooding occurred.

Years of working the land and historical data teach farmers where flooding will most likely occur when nearby waterways swell. Using this information, farmers can add buffer strips and create grass waterways to shepherd water through their fields without risking soil erosion, nutrient loss and run-off where they plan to grow crops.

John Combest
John Combest

John Combest
Research and Development Communications

Walt Bones
Walt Bones
Walt Bones
Fourth-Generation Farmer
flooded field
flooded field

“We have put buffer strips along all of our blue-lined, or named, creeks,” Bones explained. While these creeks aren’t always at great risk for flooding, many may fill with water after a rain but a week later be completely dry, each has around 15 – 30 meters (approx. 50 – 100 feet) of buffer surrounding them.

“We also have grass waterways that we strategically placed so that when the water does come and runs off it doesn’t cut deep gullies into the fields and again lose the soil and the nutrients and everything that goes with it,” Bones added.

farm field
farm field

In areas where erosion or silt buildup does happen, farmers will add or remove dirt as needed to level their fields out again. This redistribution helps to resurrect the soil health in the area, promoting biodiversity and microbe activity.

Stagnant Flood Waters

Overland flooding occurs when water pools in certain areas of fields once the nearby waterway recedes. This water is considered stagnant because there is no longer movement adding oxygen. The same is true for localized flooding caused by excessive rainfall as opposed to flooded waterways.

In general, when overland and localized flooding dries out, there isn’t much erosion or silt. However, there may be changes to the soil. This is where understanding the area’s climate becomes helpful.

If a field is flooded during a cold period, the microbes in the soil are dormant and can better survive the excess water. Additionally, the cold ground can be less likely to release essential nutrients. In warmer conditions, the excessive water can create oxygen deprivation in the soil. This can lead to a loss of soil biodiversity once the waters dry out.

flooded field
flooded field

Modern Ag Practices and Digital Tools Help Farmers Prepare

Again, farmers use years of personal experience combined with data analytics and modeling software to predict which parts of their fields are more likely to flood. Ponding models show farmers areas of their fields that are prone to standing water. Using this information, farmers determine which seeds to plant where. Certain varieties and hybrids are better able to withstand excess water and still thrive.

Whether stagnant or rushing flood waters, there are other steps farmers can take to prepare their fields for wet seasons. Using modern agriculture practices like no-till and conservation tillage, and planting cover crops where field and climate conditions are right can protect fields from erosion and nutrient loss.

“We tried no-till for a while and it just didn’t quite work here so we do some minimum till. We still use cover crops and we leave a lot of the corn stubble to keep some cover on the ground. We’ve spent generations, literally, building up the soil and trying to have a sustainable model that we can pass on to the next generation,” Bones said.

Sometimes, farmers decide the risk is too great to plant a commodity crop choosing instead to plant buffer areas, refuge zones or pollinator habitats.

“Usually our most fertile ground is in the lower ground, so we try to utilize that the best we can. If we can’t, we farm around it, more or less, and try to develop it for wildlife habitat,” Bones explained.

By combining their own knowledge about their specific fields with advice and expertise from industry partners and agronomists, farmers are striving to sustainably feed, clothe and provide resources for the world’s growing population. When aided by data, information and technologies like The Climate Corporation’s FieldView Platform, farmers can adequately plan to reduce the impact of daily weather and catastrophic climate events on their crops.

For more information, specifically in regards to how flooding effects the American Midwest and how The Climate Corporation helps farmers cope, read Soil Strategies: Coping with the Effects of Cold, Wet Soils at Planting by Brad Colman, Director of Weather Strategy, and Ziru Liu, Senior Sensor Scientist.

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Kate Hayes
May 17, 2019 - 07:50 PM

Very timely and informative article. Thanks for sharing!

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