Adaptive agriculture could align farmers with success
More than 150 years ago, French chemist Louis Pasteur quipped, “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” Many climatologists, including Gene Takle, director of Iowa State University’s Climate Science program, want to drag that wisdom into the context of 21st century farming.
“Climate change is already happening—this is something we can objectively observe,” he says.
So the next question becomes, what have scientists observed? According to Takle, the answer varies by geography, but generally speaking, the following three statements are true:
- Hot areas are getting hotter and drier for longer periods of time.
- Wet areas are getting wetter and more humid, with greater intensity.
- Climate variability is on the rise.
“The variability we’re experiencing and will experience will surprise you,” says John Corbett, president and CEO of aWhere, an ag data management company. “When farmers begin to be impacted by the unexpected, then they will start to listen.”
The data his company has collected suggests a surge that has tripled the amount of weather variance from normal conditions. Corbett argues farmers will be able to solve challenges with increased volatility through what he calls weather-agile agriculture.
Solutions might be tricky to come by, admits Jonah Kolb, vice president of Illinois-based Moore & Warner Farm Management.
“Most of what we see around managing volatility is adding diversification,” he says. “But no one’s planning for climate change 20 years out—yet. Generally, the infrastructure isn’t set up to make dramatic changes. We grow grain very cheaply, and we do it really well at scale, so there’s value in that.”
Kolb says farmers can use their own fields to test strategies against variability, whether that be hybrid selection, planting date analysis or in-season management tweaks.
“Farmers and technology providers alike have access to a real-world lab,” he says.
Some farmers are already making production tweaks in response to climatic changes. For example, with an increase in abnormally wet spring and summer weather, Takle says Iowa farmers have responded by installing a tremendous amount of subsurface tile to more effectively move excess water. In addition, spring planting dates have crept forward an average two to three weeks compared with the 1970s, he notes.
That brings up a point sometimes lost in climate change discussion, Takle says. Some consequences are net positives—in this case, a longer growing season. Drier fall weather is another climate trend beneficial to farmers if they’re able to minimize dry-down costs.
“There have been pluses and minuses. It’s a mixed bag,” Takle says. “Climate has been favorable enough on balance to help yields the past 15 years. But if these trends continue, those gains are at risk.”
On the negative side of the “climate ledger” are rising dew points. Based on Des Moines weather data, dew points have slowly risen by 3° to 4° during the past 40 years, Takle says.
“First, it causes more fungus and mold pathogens to grow,” he adds. “Also, when it’s extremely humid and hot at night, the plant transpires and gives back carbon to the atmosphere it gathered during the day.”
Bottom line? That lost carbon represents lost grain weight opportunity.
One more point: Arguing about whether climate change is influenced by human activity, and to what degree, is ultimately a distraction, Corbett says.
“Does it really matter if we know the cause?” he asks. “We’re observing temperature and carbon dioxide increases. We can’t explain everything yet, but there’s clearly something going on.”
To show how hot areas are getting hotter, wet areas are getting wetter and climate variability is increasing, here’s how Iowa weather has changed:
Every year from 2010 to 2014 could be called extreme—spring and summer rainfall totals were outside the 95th percentile.
Dairy and livestock producers aren’t exempt from climate change effects, either. The prevalence of mycotoxins in ruminant diets might rise as the temperature does. Pre- and postharvest contaminations are causing mycotoxins to increase diversity. That puts livestock at risk for any number of health challenges, including reproductive disorders, laminitis, mastitis, reduced feed intake and impaired liver function.
Fortunately, there’s a simple-enough solution to these potential problems.
“Producers need to be proactive rather than reactive,” says Max Hawkins, nutritionist with Alltech’s Mycotoxin Management Team. “Sample silage and know what your risk is to implement proper management practices.