"Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” --Mark Twain
We should have known weather would be a hot topic this year - pun intended - when Illinois farmers were seen applying anhydrous a week after New Year’s Day. Sunscreen on Jan. 6? You betcha!
Whether you believe weird weather is the new norm, no one can debate this fact: 2011 was a record year for climate-related disasters. There were over 12 U.S. weather-related calamities that cost at least $1 million apiece last year; 14 if you add crop losses. The previous record was eight, just four years ago.
And now meteorologists predict a ‘normal’ growing season – whatever that is. We talk about the implications of a ‘normal’ year in detail, beginning on p. 14 of our upcoming April issue of Farm Futures.
“If you look at global situations, climate change does seem to be occurring,” says University of Illinois extension crop systems educator Dennis Bowman. But to paraphrase Twain, is there really anything you can do about weather? After all, a ‘normal’ cropping season, notes Purdue agronomist Bob Nielsen, is one that involves “an unpredictable number of unpredictable extreme weather events, each occurring unpredictably, with unpredictable severity.”
Sums it up nicely.
Predictions for climate change don’t bode well for global crop production. If they hold, yields will decline in most regions, other than northern latitudes where there may be a net positive effect. In most developing countries it will be negative. The best case scenarios show world cereal grain production neutral until 2030 and pessimistic after that.
Pest profiles will change and plant breeders will be key to developing cultivars resistant to all kinds of weather-related stress. Countries that the foresight to sink serious cash into Ag R&D will come out ahead.
The warm winter likely did not do U.S. farmers any favors for 2012. Soybean rust that would normally be killed off from hard freeze survived in the Gulf states. Warmer soils may have experienced denitrification and pests, such as corn flea beetle and bean leaf beetles, may come back in a vengeance.
From a bigger picture standpoint, the global increase in greenhouse gases – specifically nitrous oxide – may lead to increased regulations on nitrogen fertilizer. “If we apply N and soil is saturated, it leaves as nitrous oxide, so we can be a contributor to greenhouse gases,” says Bowman. “We have to watch for that legislation.”
Already adapting To some degree, farmers are already adapting to weird weather. If you find yourself planting longer season hybrids, harvesting later, installing drainage to manage rainfall, and purchasing larger machinery to plant in smaller weather windows, you are already adapting to climate change. Even so, while we still have higher trend line yields, the thing that most often derails that line is weather.
That usually means precipitation and temperature extremes. So what is happening? In recent years, days with over 1.5 inches of precipitation are on the increase. In central Illinois for example, last year’s precipitation often came in the form of gully washers; but by the end of the year, rainfall was around, well, average.
Likewise, records indicate minimum summer temperatures are creeping higher; when nighttime temps don’t cool down enough, corn plant metabolism suffers.
You may not be able to weather proof crops, but you can take steps to minimize weather impact. Mitigate intense rain events with good drainage and conservation practices such as no-till. Improving tile or surface drainage reduces the risks of ponding or soggy soils, denitrification and soil compaction. In areas of rolling hills with high risks of soil erosion and reduced ability to retain soil moisture, Nielsen says it is important to minimize water runoff and maximize soil moisture retention. Besides no-till other techniques include strip-cropping, contour farming, terraces, managed water control structures, and cover crops.
Manage nitrogen through best management practices. That includes avoiding fall applications, avoiding surface application of urea-based fertilizers without incorporation, and sidedressing N whenever practical.
“Today, farmers need to be corn plant psychologists,” Bowman concludes. “It’s all about stress management during the growing season.”
Even Mark Twain would agree, that’s something we could all use this time of year.