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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.

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