Farm management: Preparing for natural disasters

You can’t avoid a natural disaster, but you can plan for it. Here are a few ideas for what to do to reduce your risks and minimise damage.

Farmers can’t plan for every possible event that might take place. But this is no reason not to plan for worst-case scenarios.

Good management is about good planning, and good planning is essential for survival.


When drawing up your drought plan:

  • Provide for the circumstances on your farm. Plant crops suited to your area and, if necessary, drought-resistant varieties.
  • Reduce the size of areas planted as soon as water supplies are under pressure. Counter having less land under production by employing improved farming methods on the land you’re using. A good farmer always strives to produce more from less.
  • Check your irrigation methods. Is your irrigation system “water efficient”? Earth canals or furrows are a wasteful way of moving water. If you can’t afford pipes, buy plastic sheeting (or lay flat plastic piping) and line the canal. Build cement sluices with proper sliding gates instead of removing the soil to redirect the water.
  • Make sure your irrigation system is the best for the job and always check for leaks at joints and valves.
  • Check that your water delivery programme is designed to give the right quantity of water, at the right times, to your crops.
  • Don’t over-irrigate because you have no accurate way of measuring the plants’ water requirements. Not only is this wasteful, but it will also reduce yields. Measuring a plant’s water requirements doesn’t have to be expensive. You can use a spade and dig a soil profile to see how far down the water penetrates, which is better than no measuring.
  • Ensure your farm dam is well-sealed and not leaking. If it leaks, fix it before a drought takes hold.


  • A flood may only happen once every 50 years, but a wise farmer takes a few basic precautions – because you never know!
  • Make sure that pumps and pipelines are positioned where flood waters will not sweep them away.
  • Farm buildings should be above the 50-year mark (flood line). Why lose a building and equipment for the sake of a few metres of land?
  • Always have alternative routes available, in case roads or farm bridges are washed away.
  • You may not be able to prevent fences being washed away or low-lying lands being flooded, but if you’re concerned about a possible flood make sure livestock is moved to higher ground.
  • Are farm dams well-built and do they have a good overflow outlet? Could there be damage if one of them broke?
  • All these should be looked at in your planning and included in your usual farming activities, if possible.


Hail can be cruel, especially to crop farmers. Livestock could be hurt, and their young killed. But animals can usually be herded under a shelter, whereas a crop farmer can do relatively little to reduce losses.

Here are some ways to minimise losses:

  • Get insurance against hail damage. Weigh the cost of insurance against the potential for hail damage. If you live in a high-risk hail area, it could be worthwhile to take insurance, but in a low-risk area you’ll probably decide to take a chance.
  • Save money for the bad times. If hail wipes out your main source of income, a savings account could help to keep you going until things get better.
  • Assess the damage carefully – you might find enough good tomatoes to pick and sell. If the quality has been affected but you feel you could still get something for the tomatoes, sell them in a box that does not bear your brand; you don’t want to spoil your good name by packing poor quality into your standard container.
  • Pick and sell what you can rescue as quickly as possible to boost your cash flow, and then plough the tomatoes in so that you can plant something else. You want to get back into business quickly to make up for the months of production that were lost.
  • Consider using nets to protect crops from hail damage.
  • Unfortunately, hail comes with rain and farmers plant for the rainy season.
  • If you have enough irrigation water you could increase plantings out of the rainy season and reduce them in the rainy season.

Tips for hail also apply to frost damage, which can also be reduced by:

  • Planting crops that are frost-resistant/tolerant.
  • Planting crops away from known frost prone areas, such as next to the river or in a hollow.


Unlike drought, floods, hail and frost, fire is usually man-made and in most cases, we can do something about it.

Firebreaks are a legal requirement in certain areas. Don’t try to “save land” by making firebreaks as narrow as you can get away with.

When the wind is strong a firebreak probably won’t help much but it could slow down the fire for a while. A firebreak also provides access to fight the fire. Sometimes, if the wind is not too severe, you can do a controlled burn on the opposite side of the firebreak to stop the oncoming fire.

When making firebreaks one option is to plough the land along your boundary fence or to spray with a herbicide. A third option is to burn the grass between your boundary fence and the width of the firebreak.

Tell your neighbours when you’re planning to burn. Only burn firebreaks when there is no wind. Try to burn in the late afternoon, so that the evening dew will help to wet smouldering grass patches.

A 5-litre can of diesel, dry mealie cobs and a longish piece of strong wire with a sharpened point (to push the cobs onto) is a simple but effective means of starting the fire. Dip a cob into the diesel, light it and start burning. The “burner” then moves slowly along the edge of the firebreak setting the grass on fire, and the beaters are right behind him for in case they’re needed.

Ensure you have enough people to control the fire – some should have knapsack sprayers and other beaters; there should be enough spare water nearby for refilling the knapsacks. Have two teams, one on each side of the firebreak, and burn against the wind – if any – so that the fire moves slowly. The team on that side should make sure the fire is under control and burning across the firebreak, not into the veld behind their backs. The other team meets the fire as it reaches the edges of the break and makes sure it is put out properly. At least one person must be positioned about 30m behind the team, checking for burning brush or grass patches.

Be aware of what the wind is doing as you work, and never leave the area until you are 100% certain everything is under control. If things go wrong while you’re burning, call for help – immediately.

Every farm should have a few knapsack sprayers in working order, positioned where they are easily accessible. It’s no use trying to fix a sprayer while a fire is raging.

Hand tools such as beaters, axes and shovels should be accessible. Fancy firefighting equipment is expensive but that old bakkie chassis rusting behind the shed could be converted into a useful water tanker to pull behind the tractor.

Your staff and family must be made aware of the dangers of fire and all of them should be given tasks in the event of an emergency. When that fire is raging there’s no time to start training people or allocating tasks.

  • This article was written by Michael Cordes and first appeared in Farming SA.

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