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Farming On Dry Lands


Almost in the center of the western half of our continent there is a

vast area in which very little rain falls. This section includes nearly

three hundred million acres of land. It stretches from Canada on the

north into Texas on the south, and from the Missouri River (including

the Dakotas and western Minnesota) on the east to the Rocky Mountains on

the west. In this great area farming has to be done with little water.

This sort of farming is therefore called "dry-farming."

The soil in this section is as a rule very fertile. Therefore the

difference between farming in this dry belt and farming in most of the

other sections of our country is a difference mainly due to a lack of


As water is so scarce in this region two things are of the utmost

importance: first, to save all the rain as it falls; second, to save all

the water after it has fallen. To save the falling rain it is necessary

for the ground to be in such a condition that none of the much-needed

rain may run off. Every drop should go into the soil. Hence the farmer

should never allow his top soil to harden into a crust. Such a crust

will keep the rain from sinking into the thirsty soil. Moreover the soil

should be deeply plowed. The deeper the soil the more water it can hold.

The land should also be kept as porous as possible, for water enters a

porous soil freely. The addition of humus in the form of vegetable

manures will keep the soil in the porous condition needed. Second, after

the water has entered the soil it is important to hold it there so that

it may supply the growing crops. If the land is allowed to remain

untilled after a rain or during a hot spell, the water in it will

evaporate too rapidly and thus the soil, like a well, will go dry too

soon. To prevent this the top soil should be stirred frequently with a

disk or smoothing harrow. This stirring will form a mulch of dry soil on

the surface, and this will hold the water. Other forms of mulch have

been suggested, but the soil mulch is the only practical one. It must be

borne in mind that this surface cultivation must be regularly kept up if

the moisture is to be retained.

Some experiments in wheat-growing have shown how readily water might be

saved if plowing were done at the right time. Wheat sowed on land that

was plowed as soon as the summer crops were taken off yielded a very

much larger return than wheat sowed on land that remained untilled for

some time after the summer crops were gathered. This difference in yield

on lands of the same fertility was due to the fact that the early

plowing enabled the land to take up a sufficient quantity of moisture.

In addition to a vigilant catching and saving of water, the farmer in

these dry climates must give his land the same careful attention that

lands in other regions need. The seed-bed should be most carefully

prepared. It should be deep, porous, and excellent in tilth. During the

growing season all crops should be frequently cultivated. The harrow,

the cultivator, and the plow should be kept busy. The soil should be

kept abundantly supplied with humus.

Some crops need a little different management in dry-farming. Corn, for

example, does best when it is listed; that is, planted so that it will

come up three or four inches beneath the surface. If planted in this

way, it roots better, stands up better, and requires less work.

Just as breeders study what animals are best for their climates, so

farmers in the dry belt should study what crops are best suited to their

lands. Some crops, like the sorghums and Kafir corn, are peculiarly at

home in scantily watered lands. Others do not thrive. Experience is the

only sure guide to the proper selection.

To sum up, then, farmers can grow good crops in these lands only when

four things are done: first, the land must be thoroughly tilled so that

water can freely enter the soil; second, the land must be frequently

cultivated so that the water will be kept in the soil; third, the crops

must be properly rotated so as to use to best advantage the food and

water supply; fourth, humus must be freely supplied so as to keep the

soil in the best possible condition.