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Weather Patterns Could Dry Up Farmers’ 2011 Optimism

December 30, 2010
By: Sara Schafer, Farm Journal Media Business and Crops Editor
Drought
Tough grain growing conditions may be ahead in 2011 as La Nina threats loom.  

Editors note: AgWeb editors and readers have weighed in on the top stories of 2010 that will continue to be a major story in 2011. This is the fourth in a five-part series. (Read all of the major stories.)
 
It’s hard to trust the weather forecast for the next week, much less the next few months or year ahead. But, by recapping the last year and aligning historical La Nina weather patterns, one weather expert can provide some helpful insight.
 

The Weather that Was

Looking back at the 2010 weather patterns, several words come to mind: a beautiful spring, warm nights and rain, rain and more rain, all common to an El Nino pattern that dissipated in May. And just as quickly, a La Nina developed rapidly in the Pacific Ocean in July.  
 
Elwin Taylor, Iowa State University Extension climatologist says coming into 2010, we had our third harsh winter in a row. But, the large amount of precipitation in the winter helped the drainage tiles throughout the Midwest flow all winter.
 
Thus, there was more than ample water come spring. Taylor says that abundant water was a major problem for some, as flooding did occur. "But, the flooding was not as serious as 1993."
 
The clouds cleared and allowed for a nice warm spell in April, which brought fantastic planting conditions. "Farmers saw the best conditions at planting that they had seen for several years," Taylor says.
 
Alas, the summer saw more rain, accompanied by heat.
 
"We had the second rainiest summer in 137 years," Taylor says (1993 was the rainiest). "The summer conditions were very different from the last three years in that it was a warmer period. The nights were particularly warmer than normal, which hastened crop development."
 
This turned out to be the biggest development for the corn crop in 2010 and it likely will continue to be a big story in 2011. The crop size has consistently dwindled this fall and that has cut into already tight supplies.
 
Taylor says the rushing to maturity of the corn crop did not disappoint anyone, as not much extra drying was required after harvest. "Yet, the hastened maturity did reduce yields in corn."
 
The good growing conditions saw in the Midwest were caused, in part, by a La Nina weather pattern.
 
Dan Anderson, a farmer from Haxtun, Colo., says these La Nina conditions were also felt worldwide. "The warm nights that caused a deterioration and decline in the U.S. corn crop were magnified as China, Argentina, Russia, Europe and Australia all became affected by some type of La Nina conditions."
 
Anderson believes easily, the No. 1 story in agriculture for 2010 was the influence the La Nina pattern had across the globe. "This weather phenomenon has and will continue to have drastic repercussions," he says.
 

The Weather Ahead

A recent AgWeb.com poll asked: What’s the worst Christmas present agriculture could receive this year? Out of the four answers (no ethanol tax credit, a record crop in South America, a drought from La Nina and something else), a drought from La Nina received the highest amount of votes, accounting for nearly 50% of the 620 votes. 
 
Taylor says a drought caused by the La Nina weather pattern is definitely on the table.
"You always have anxiety when you have a La Nina in the winter. It doesn’t cause a drought, but it associated with drought," he says.
 
What’s really raising weather experts’ eyebrows is the similarity of the current La Nina weather pattern and that of the one experienced in 1973-74.
 
1974 was a year many farmers try to forget, as it was comprised of a late spring frost, a very dry summer (one of the worst droughts since the Dust Bowl) and an early frost. 
"It has been a long time since a drought and we have a pattern set up to do so," Taylor says.
 
But, there’s always a chance the destructive weather pattern will lessen and not repeat its previous damage. "We don’t know if La Nina will still be here in April," he says. "It has showed some signs of weakening in the last month."
 
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