Dryland Farming: Everything You Need to Know

Published on:
December 11, 2023

The fundamental needs for growing crops include nutrients, water, and sunlight. While you can enhance nutrition with organic fertilisers, managing the right levels of water and sunlight can be more challenging.

Water and sunlight availability depends on the climate, but farmers and experts have been finding ways to adapt to and harness these natural factors for a long time.

For instance, irrigation systems have been employed by farmers for thousands of years, enabling crops to thrive even in regions with less rainfall. However, in areas with inconsistent water sources, like arid climates with distinct wet and dry seasons, dryland farming techniques become essential.

What is Dryland Farming?

The term "dryland farming" might sound like farming without water, but it's not quite that. Dryland farming, also called "dry farming" or "dryland agriculture," means farmers don't use irrigation for their crops. Instead, they rely on soil moisture, groundwater, and occasional rainfall.

Dry farming doesn't usually yield as much as regular farming, but it promotes sustainable practices by keeping the soil active year-round. This not only benefits the soil's health but also helps it retain more moisture. This prepares the soil to produce crops during the dry season and improves its condition for the regular growing season.

What is Rainfed Farming?

Rainfed farming is quite intricate and comes with a lot of variation and uncertainty. It's a type of agriculture where productivity and the use of resources are generally low, and it's especially vulnerable to the unpredictable monsoon patterns influenced by climate change. This leads to significant fluctuations and instability in crop yields.

But What’s The Difference Between Rainfed Farming and Dryland Farming?

Sl. No. Point of Difference Rainfed Farming Dryland Farming
1. Definition relies primarily on rainfall a subset of rainfed farming that specifically refers to areas with limited rainfall, where moisture is a limiting factor
2. Soil Moisture Management the soil moisture is often more reliable farmers may use techniques like conservation tillage and moisture-retaining mulches
3. Crop Types Suitable for a wider range of crops, including those with varying water requirements Limited to crops that can thrive in arid or semi-arid conditions, often drought-resistant varieties
4. Risk and Uncertainty Generally less risky due to more reliable rainfall but can still be affected by seasonal variations Higher risk due to extreme water scarcity and vulnerability to droughts; crop yields are more unpredictable

Both passive methods of irrigating crops can be applied across various climates, but not every farm is suited for dryland agriculture. Dry farming is typically associated with regions receiving over 20 inches of annual rainfall, where most of it pours down during a specific period, followed by months of scarce precipitation

 The primary goal of dry farming is to minimise water evaporation from the soil, hence farms located in areas where evaporation surpasses precipitation are often labelled as "dryland farms." In essence, dry farming hinges on crops extracting moisture from the soil, creating a symbiotic relationship that ensures crop survival and soil preservation throughout the dry season.

What Are Dryland Farming Practices?

When it comes to dryland agriculture, you need a smart approach to what to plant and when:

1. Early Planting: Planting before the soil dries out too much has multiple advantages. It helps retain moisture, which is great for your crops. Waiting until the soil becomes too dry is not ideal for a thriving harvest.

2. Cover Crops: Using cover crops is a highly effective method in regenerative farming. Allowing these crops to naturally decompose and cover the soil after they're done helps rejuvenate dry farmland. There are several reasons why letting cover crops turn into mulch is beneficial such as:

  • Evaporation prevention
  • Weed control
  • Increased organic matter

When you use cover crops as natural mulch, the advantages they offer while they're growing and lush carry over to the soil during the dry season. By doing this, you reduce the competition for water, increase soil moisture, and boost organic matter content. These benefits can result in fertile soil, even in dry regions. Additionally, cover crops can be tilled into the soil to create "green manure," enriching it with nutrients.

4. Reduced Planting Density: When it comes to dry farming, it's crucial to sow crops with more space between them to reduce competition for water. Since water is scarce in this method, it won't produce as many crops as during the peak growing season, but that's not its goal. To maintain soil health, farmers intentionally plant fewer crops. However, this results in fruits with less water content, making them denser and more flavorful.

Features of Dryland Farming

  • In regions with dryland farming,
  • Rainfall is sporadic, unevenly spread, and often insufficient
  • These areas frequently face climatic challenges like droughts and floods
  • The terrain is typically uneven
  • Farmers own extensive plots of land
  • They commonly practise extensive farming, often focusing on single crops
  • Crop yields tend to be exceptionally low

What Are Some Dryland Farming Crops?

In dryland farming, certain crops have proven to be more successful than others. Examples of dry-farmed crops include

  • Grapes
  • Tomatoes
  • Pumpkins
  • Beans
  • Various summer crops

On the other hand, dryland grain crops encompass

  • Wheat
  • Corn
  • Millet
  • Rye
  • Similar grain-producing grasses

What sets these crops apart is their ability to flourish without relying solely on seasonal rainfall. Instead, they tap into the moisture stored in the soil during the winter months. This sustainable approach allows for a diverse range of crops to thrive in dryland regions, from winter wheat and maize to beans, sunflowers, and even watermelon.

The choice of crops largely depends on the timing of the predominant rainfall concerning the seasons. Areas with heavier winter rainfall are better suited for winter wheat, while regions with rainy summers may find summer-growing crops like

  • Sorghum
  • Sunflowers
  • Cotton

… to be more fitting choices.

Can I Use Fertilisers on My Dryland?

One drawback of dryland farming is that it's tough for crops to thrive due to the limited water supply. The soil struggles to distribute nutrients without enough moisture, and the absence of live cover crops further reduces nutrients and organic matter.

So yes, adding fertilisers can greatly benefit this farming method. The best timing for fertiliser application is early in the planting process, before tilling the soil into dust mulch. This allows minerals and nutrients to spread effectively in the soil. Nitrogen-rich fertilisers are especially crucial during this phase as they play a vital role in forming the plant's structure and roots.

An Endnote

Where Does India Stand in Dryland Farming?

Primary dryland farming crops comprise millets such as bajra, jowar, and ragi, along with oilseeds like rapeseed and mustard, and pulse crops including grams, pigeon pea, and lentils. In India, a substantial portion of key crops is cultivated through dryland farming, with approximately 80% of maize, 90% of bajra, nearly 95% of pulses, and 75% of oilseeds originating from these arid regions. This underscores the critical role of dryland farming in sustaining India's agricultural production.

India's vast land area is characterised by three distinct climate zones: subhumid, arid, and humid. Consequently, dryland farming occupies a larger portion of this expanse compared to wet agriculture. Despite employing 40% of the workforce and covering 66% of the land, there's a need to enhance productivity in these regions to balance the ratio.

Prioritising dryland farming is essential for the nation's holistic growth. This farming system relies on industrial crops like cotton, oilseeds, tobacco, groundnuts, and pulses, forming its foundation. Placing a stronger emphasis on dryland farming is not only vital for fostering the agro-processing industries but also for steering Indian agriculture towards a more export-oriented path.

Dryland agriculture typically yields robust and nutritious crops such as bajra, Jowar, ragi, oilseeds, pulses, cotton seeds, safflower, and sunflower, which can contribute significantly to addressing nutrition challenges in underdeveloped regions. Moreover, dryland farming's focus on cash crops, exemplified by the cultivation of Jatropha, holds promise in mitigating oil crises by providing a versatile liquid that can be blended with petroleum products without compromising their efficiency.

Additionally, it offers the potential to supply cattle feed and fodder, thereby supporting the white revolution in India's dairy industry.

The Bottom Line

The practice of dryland farming is not just an age-old tradition but a vital component of modern agriculture. Through methods like soil conservation, crop selection, and water management, dryland farming can unlock the potential of these lands, ensuring they thrive even in arid regions. Embracing the principles of dryland farming is not only an investment in the future of agriculture but a testament to our commitment to a more sustainable and food-secure world.

Dryland Farming FAQs

1. What do you mean by dryland farming?

Dryland farming is an approach to cultivating crops that depends entirely on natural rainfall and the soil's ability to hold moisture. It's typically employed in areas where yearly rainfall is below 750mm. This method can pose challenges as the crops often face moisture shortages due to the unpredictable nature of monsoon rains.

2. What are the advantages of dry land agriculture?

Dryland farming plays a crucial role in preserving water, reducing soil erosion, and supporting sustainable agriculture. These methods are especially valuable in regions with scarce water, making them a vital asset in ensuring food security in arid areas.

3. What is the history of dryland farming?

Dryland farming is likely one of the oldest forms of agriculture, dating back to the dawn of farming. China, with a farming history spanning over 8000 years, provides documented evidence of dryland farming in arid regions (Li 2007). Many other parts of the world also boast rich histories of dryland agriculture.

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