Are You Adjusting For Climate Change?

Evidence continues to mount that farm management must change with the climate.

Published on: Dec 10, 2010

Years ago, Penn State and Cornell University climate watchers began talking about the earlier and faster growing degree day accumulations compared to even 30 years ago. Fruit trees are blooming and ripening earlier.

Long-season corn hybrids aren't so long-season anymore. They're maturing and drying down earlier than ever.

Insects that used to be problems only in the South are crawling – or flying – up into the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Weeds that never overwintered in north country are now doing so because of milder winters – less snow and more temperate temperatures.

TOUGHER TEMPS: Corn in soils with marginal water-holding capacity could face tougher growing conditions and reduced yields.
TOUGHER TEMPS: Corn in soils with marginal water-holding capacity could face tougher growing conditions and reduced yields.

North country is no longer as north as it used to be. And the subtle yet profound climate changes could reshape crop agriculture, contends Otto Doering, director of the Climate Change Research Center at Purdue University. If climate change predictions are accurate, farmers between Interstate 70 and 80 "could get a permanent dose of southern-style weather."

Agricultural producers throughout the Corn Belt latitudes are already facing warmer average temperatures and precipitation extremes. That's leading farmers to shift to more climate-appropriate crops or management strategies, says Doering. By year 2100, one scenario predicts central Indiana's climate would be like that of Virginia (mid- to upper 40s) during winter and Oklahoma (regularly topping 90 degrees) during summer.

As the climate shifts . . .

Farmers will be confronted with major meteorological challenges. Rainfall variability with a smaller number of storms over the growing season and more intense storms are things we'll have to watch out for," he predicts.

Warmer winters mean pests wouldn't be wiped out as much like on those days in January where it's below zero and the cold permeates the ground. That may help explain the northward march of stink bugs into Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Even with climate changes, Indiana and the upper Midwest would continue to be the nation's best corn-growing region. But the western Corn Belt that relies on irrigation might drop corn production altogether if permanent drier conditions prevail, he says. "In those places, farmers are probably going to move to dry land sorghum, dry land wheat and other sorts of crops." Other potential impacts include:

Double cropping is already moving farther North, particularly on the East Coast.

Seed maturities, traits and planting schedules also are shifting.

Rainfall and temperature changes could erode conservation gains and reduce soil organic matter.

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