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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Research Project: IMPROVING SOIL AND WATER MANAGEMENT PRACTICES IN CROPPING AND INTEGRATED CROP-LIVESTOCK SYSTEMS

Location: Soil and Water Management Research

Title: Water Conservation for Agriculture

Authors
item Unger, Paul - USDA-ARS RETIRED
item Kirkham, Mary - KANSAS STATE UNIVERSITY
item Nielsen, David

Submitted to: Soil Science Society of America Special Publication Book Chapter
Publication Type: Book / Chapter
Publication Acceptance Date: October 25, 2009
Publication Date: April 1, 2010
Citation: Unger, P.W., Kirkham, M.B., Nielsen, D.C. 2010. Water Conservation for Agriculture. In: Zobeck, T.M., Schillinger, W.F., editors. Soil and Water Conservation Advances in the United States. Special Publication 60. Madison, WI:Soil Science Society of America, Inc. p. 1-45.

Interpretive Summary: The importance of water conservation for agriculture has been recognized for centuries. At present, competition for water is increasing among agricultural and other users. Our objectives were to review progress made during the past 100 years in our understanding of factors affecting water conservation and to identify some ways to possibly improve water conservation. To conserve water for agriculture, it must be captured, retained, and used efficiently to produce crops. Early emphasis was on deep plowing to capture water. Deep plowing improves capture in some soils, but good capture is possible also by using practices such as ridge, stubble mulch, and conservation tillage; bench terracing; and furrow diking. To retain water, losses due to evaporation, use by weeds, and deep percolation must be reduced. Early emphasis to reduce evaporation was on dust mulching, which reduces evaporation where a definite dry season follows a definite rainy season, but evaporation control also is possible by using crop residue and other mulches. Many herbicides are available to control weeds and deep percolation can be reduced by using good management practices. Efficient water use is obtained mainly by using good management practices, including crop selection, irrigation method, and cropping systems. Development of herbicides; improved tillage and irrigation practices; and other related activities has contributed to major water conservation advances for agriculture, but further advances are needed. Possible ways to achieve further advances include retaining more crop residues, obtaining better weed control, conducting more detailed research, dealing with fuel production from crops, and promoting already available practices that are effective for conserving water.

Technical Abstract: Water conservation for agriculture has been important for centuries and is becoming increasingly important due to competition among agricultural and other users. Our objectives were to review progress made in our understanding of factors affecting water conservation during the past 100 years and to identify challenges and opportunities for improving water conservation. The basic principles of water conservation are to capture, retain, and use water efficiently to produce a desirable yield. Early emphasis to capture water was on deep plowing. Deep plowing improves capture in some soils, but practices such as ridge, stubble mulch, and conservation tillage; bench terracing; and furrow diking are effective also. To retain the water, losses due to evaporation, use by weeds, and deep percolation must be minimized. Early emphasis to reduce evaporation was on dust mulching, which reduces evaporation where a distinct dry season follows a distinct rainy season, but effective evaporation control is possible by using crop residue and other mulches. Numerous herbicides are available to control weeds and deep percolation can be reduced by using good management practices. Efficient water use is achieved mainly by using good management practices, including crop selection, irrigation method, and cropping systems. Development of herbicides; improved tillage and irrigation practices; and other related activities has contributed to major water conservation advances for agriculture, but challenges and opportunities remain, including the need for better residue retention, weed control, and more comprehensive research; concerns regarding biofuel production; and improved dissemination of available information regarding water conservation.

Last Modified: 8/27/2014
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