By SCOTT WYLAND, Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE, NM (AP) — A few years ago, Paul Skrak decided to explore different cultivation methods that could help his crops better withstand the seemingly endless drought.

On the advice of a consultant, the Peña Blanca farmer started using cover crops, both to protect the soil from the sun and to loosen it up to allow water to penetrate better.

He plows his 55-acre Hidalgo farms as little as possible, and sometimes not at all, to preserve vital topsoil.

He began to shift to more drought-tolerant crops, such as soybeans and sudan grass, and away from the more thirsty alfalfa. And where possible, it uses drip irrigation instead of the more water-intensive flood irrigation typically used in the middle Rio Grande Valley.

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More recently, Skrak began applying a soil amendment called Hydretain, which is said to cut irrigation in half by allowing plants to take up water more efficiently.

Skrak has become a strong supporter of Hydretain. The state and irrigation district should subsidize farmers to buy this amendment rather than paying them to fallow their fields, Skrak told the Santa Fe New Mexican, saying it will conserve water and allow producers to continue operating.

“There’s a huge economic impact,” Skrak said of growers forgoing irrigation. “Farmers will lose their income.”

If farmers apply Hydretain and other water-saving techniques during a dry season, they will still get a smaller harvest, but it’s better than nothing, Skrak said.

Nothing Skrak has adopted is new. Hydretain has been on the market for about seven years and cultivation techniques have been around for decades.

But they’re not common in the middle valley, either because growers don’t know about them or because they resist using unfamiliar methods, some of which involve more work or a significant upfront cost, Kevin said. Branum, owner of grant-based EAS Agro and advised Skrac.

Skrak was one of the first in the Valley to try these techniques, Branum said.

And now they’re gaining momentum as more farmers who were hesitant and wanted to see how hard they worked are joining them, Branum said.

It will be imperative for growers to adopt more water-efficient agriculture as climate change causes hotter, drier weather that depletes rivers needed for irrigation, Branum said.

Water handlers on the fence

Still, the official who helps oversee irrigation in the valley said there is no one-size-fits-all approach to farming in the event of a prolonged drought.

“It really depends on what we find when we dig in the soil,” said Jason Casuga, interim CEO and chief district engineer of Middle Rio Grande Conservancy.

Hydretain might work well in one area but not another, Casuga said.

And even if this product proves effective, the district could not simply divert other funds to subsidize its use, Casuga said. That includes money intended to pay farmers about $420 per acre not to water their fields, he said.

The purpose of the fallow program is to increase the amount of water available, both for irrigation and for sending downstream to pay Texas what it is owed under a water-sharing agreement. water known as the Rio Grande Compact, Casuga said.

New Mexico finished 2021 ahead of Texas over 100,000 acre-feet of water. One acre-foot is enough to submerge a football field in water one foot deep.

The district will first discuss set-aside with part-time growers who don’t live off their farms, Casuga said.

Meanwhile, technical experts in the district will study the effectiveness of methods such as cover cropping in the valley before recommending anything, Casuga said.

“Cover cropping could be a good thing,” Casuga said. “It all depends on the ground.

Cover crops are beneficial but require more work

Branum insists that the proof is in the results.

Over the past two years, when the district has shortened irrigation seasons due to low water supplies, Skrak has been able to grow more than it otherwise would have, Branum said.

The use of cover crops was a big part of that, he said.

Cover crops such as radishes, turnips and wild peas help break up tough dirt, creating small pathways with the roots that allow water to better penetrate the soil later, he said. . The more absorbent soil reduces unnecessary runoff and allows rainwater to infiltrate rather than flood fields during heavy storms, he added.

“We have dramatically increased (Skrak) infiltration rates by planting these cover crops,” Branum said.

Other types of cover crops, such as buckwheat and rye, trap moisture in the topsoil and prevent it from getting too hot and killing essential microbes, he said.

All of the different cover crops are planted simultaneously to prepare the ground for growing the farmer’s cash crops such as corn, Branum said. Cover crops are cut and main crops are then planted over the remains, which helps suppress weeds and adds nutrients to the soil.

Cover crops eliminate the need for deep plowing to dig up weeds and break up the soil, he said. Tillage is not completely eliminated, but is minimized to protect topsoil.

The cover crop has been used further north, such as in the Española region, for more than a century, but has not been adopted by farmers in the middle valley, Branum said.

Drip irrigation is slowly being adopted in the state, he said. It wasn’t long ago that it was widely believed that alfalfa couldn’t be watered this way, and now Deming’s alfalfa growers are doing it.

One downside is that drip irrigation requires a large up-front investment, Branum said, adding that a farmer usually needs to have a lucrative specialty crop to recoup costs.

Meanwhile, Skrak replaces alfalfa with sorghum grass, which is also a livestock feed but uses less water.

Skrak said he spoke to nearby growers about how the new cultivation methods could benefit them as the drought drags on.

Some are receptive, but others are resistant to switching to something like cover crops that are more labor intensive, even if it improves the long-term health of their farms, he said.

He added: “I think a lot of farmers would prefer to plow like they’ve done for 300 years.”

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