Drought resources for Michigan farmers

A look at options for managing drought in the short and long term.

Dry corn field.

It’s been an extremely dry year, presenting a challenge to many of Michigan’s crop and livestock producers. In this article, we briefly describe a few things to consider when managing your operation through times of drought. We focus on short-term options, which could potentially be useful this year, and long-term options, which may help to prepare for future droughts. 

Short-term options

Grain marketing: Use weather-driven prices to your advantage. As drought conditions can drive up grain prices nationally, farmers can lock in these prices for their future produce. Obviously, it is important not to oversell. However, if you have purchased crop insurance, you can contract up to your coverage level at minimal risk. Michigan State University Extension’s DEMaND series also provides an introduction to grain marketing for those looking for in-depth basics.

Monitoring drought conditions: Use the University of Nebraska’s U.S. Drought Monitor website to keep an eye on the drought situation and potentially predict the impact on crops. MSU’s Enviroweather also provides up-to-date forecasts of future conditions. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) provides a weekly update on Michigan Crop Weather that covers weather and how it is affecting crop development.

Take advantage of MSU Extension agronomic resources: MSU Extension’s Drought Resources page provides a variety of information for field crops, including resources on how drought can affect optimal weed control. Other agricultural universities, including North Dakota State University, have advised altering fertilizer timing as a response to drought. 

Longer-term options

Crop insurance and disaster payments: Crop insurance is a reliable method to mitigate the risk posed by extreme weather events. Insurance can protect farmers against a catastrophic loss in yield, and insurance premiums are significantly subsidized. It's important to sign up for these programs in advance. Typically, the crop insurance enrollment deadline is mid-March for field crops. The USDA Drought page provides links to connect with local insurance agents, as well as reporting timelines post-drought. 

For crops that are ineligible for crop insurance, the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program may be an option for your farm. The USDA Disaster Assistance Discovery Tool suggests programs based on your enterprise, location and timing of disaster, including drought. 

Soil health and farming practices: Managing soil organic matter is essential for drought years. Soil organic matter, which can be affected by crop rotations and cover crops, plays a crucial role in retaining soil moisture. While it can't be significantly altered in the short term, maintaining soil organic matter is a beneficial long-term practice. MSU Extension has a resource on strategies for building soil organic matter. Research has shown that increasing cropping diversity, one method of increasing soil organic matter, can make crops more resilient in the face of drought. 

Invest in efficient irrigation: Investing in irrigation is a big decision and should not be made in response to a single year’s weather. However, irrigation can increase corn yields significantly on certain soil types, if applied at critical crop development stages. Buying used equipment in dry seasons may seem attractive but can have hidden costs and issues. More discussion of the benefits and costs of irrigation can be found in the MSU Extension article, “Consider drought-motivated irrigation purchases carefully.” For decision tools on whether investing in irrigation is right for your farm, see the Useful 2 Usable irrigation investment calculator, which incorporates your county’s long-term probabilities of dry, wet or normal conditions, as well as MSU Extension’s Irrigation Capital Investment Model

If you are already irrigating, reducing water losses in the irrigation system can help provide more usable water to crops during drought conditions. This video from MSU Extension provides realistic strategies to improve irrigation efficiency on your farm.

Drought-tolerant crop varieties: The use of drought-tolerant seeds can help mitigate yield losses during drought conditions. This decision must be made before the drought season. A USDA Economic Research Service report found that 20% of U.S. corn is planted with drought-tolerant seed, and can be helpful in mild-to-moderate drought conditions, but may not be able to mitigate losses in a severe drought. 

Resilience to droughts requires advanced planning. Taking actions now can improve outcomes during future droughts. 

Did you find this article useful?