High Anxiety Weather

September 30, 2011 11:34 AM
High Anxiety Weather

One more La Niña year may be in store for 2012

The year 2011 has to go down as one of the most bizarre weather years in history. Excessive rains and snowfall this past winter and spring—combined with bureau-cratic decisions—led to record floods along the Missouri River.

This time of year, harvest should be in full swing in the fertile fields that hug the river in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas. Not this year. Abandoned farmsteads and equipment stand weary amid the mess of fields that remains now that the water has receded.

Less than a day’s drive south to Texas, producers are battling just the opposite: the worst drought since the Dust Bowl. The No. 1 cattle-producing state is losing hundreds of head a day to greener pastures. Irrigation has been ineffective because of hot, drying winds—and now, as in the floodplains, harvest is unnecessary.

"It’s pretty tough," says David Cleavinger, a Wildorado, Texas, producer. "We lost all our dryland cotton. Months later, we hadn’t gotten enough moisture for it to germinate. We keep thinking next year will be better."

Even on irrigated ground, it was difficult to get enough moisture to crops, with temperatures that hit 111°F, 5% humidity and 40 mph winds. The plants could not take the moisture up fast enough to cool them down.

As of the Sept. 12 Crop Production report, the drought is forecasted to cut Texas cotton yields by 73 lb. per acre compared with 2010’s average. Corn yields were forecasted at 112 bu. per acre, which is 33 bu. less than last year.

Looking ahead to 2012—and the threat of another La Niña—Cleavinger is considering planting more cotton and sorghum, which handle dry conditions better than corn. He might reduce his corn acres by as much as 80%—even though prices are near all-time highs. Many of Cleavinger’s fellow Texas Panhandle farmers plan to make the same changes to their crop mix. If that does happen, markets will have to respond accordingly.

Déjà vu for 2012. Meanwhile, the Climate Prediction Center, part of the National Weather Service, is calling for an increased probability of above-median precipitation next spring from the Ohio Valley to the Great Lakes. The possibility of a weather repeat of 2011 into next year, for both the Midwest and Southwest, is a real possibility.

So what is behind all the wacky weather this year, from monsoon-like rains this spring in the heartland to conditions right out of John Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath" in the Southwest and Great Plains?

Weather has always been challenging to predict and sometimes hard to explain. "It’s difficult to pin weather on any single event or events because climate has always been variable,"
explains Gene Takle, a professor of ag meteorology at Iowa State University. "Records are set every year."

Climatologists such as Takle are seeing something that goes beyond natural climate variability.
One impact of the doubling of carbon dioxide, which is measurable, is that temperatures are increasing in the Midwest along with more precipitation. Models predict that the temperature and precipitation variability, as well as more extreme rainfall events, will continue and even intensify. That means longer, warmer summers in the Midwest and more abnormal rainfall.

ragged corn
The intense heat and drought shut down pollination activity, leaving little to harvest in the southern U.S. and parts of the Midwest. PHOTO: Darrell Smith

Crop shifts. What that means for farmers, Takle says, is that they should probably consider hybrids with a longer growing season maturity date. Producers might also have to deal with new pests due to increased moisture and variable prevailing winds carrying insects and pathogen spores.

Takle believes there will be a continued shift of the Corn Belt further north for both corn and soybeans, possibly even into Canada, as conditions there are likely to be warmer and wetter. He also sees the Corn Belt moving further west, although much of the corn grown there will need irrigation.

"It’s likely we will not return back to conditions of the 20th century," Takle states. "It will be either hotter or more humid, or both."

Measurable weather shifts. Though there is year-to-year variability, "in Illinois, the first fall freeze seems to be later, and in the spring, the last freeze seems to be earlier, so we have been experiencing a slightly longer growing season," says Illinois state climatologist Jim Angel.

Despite what appear to be new trends, climate change has not created record-breaking events, he adds.

"The 1930s outstripped anything we’ve seen since then—especially 1936. We have not done that since," Angel explains.

One measurable change in Illinois, Angel continues, is that humidity levels as well as moisture overall have increased over the last 30 to 40 years. "The first half of the 20th century was drier," he adds. "There was 8% to 10% less rain. But starting about 1965, the state has been wetter, on average—again, that doesn’t mean every year has been."

Angel says that in the short term (10 to 20 years), the climate will not change that much due to global warming. The big changes from more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will occur during the next 50 to 100 years.

"We’ll continue to see wetter conditions," he cautions. As a result, the possibility of producers struggling to get crops planted in the spring due to wet conditions is likely.

In regard to temperatures, Angel says the 1800s were 2°F cooler than today, and notes the temperatures were exceptionally high this year. In the 1930s, Illinois had 100°F for days on end.
"There’s no smoking gun linking this year’s weather to climate change," Angel concludes. "As for the future, producers should expect more variability, with a bias over time of warmer temperatures and wetter conditions."

That’s true for South Dakota—and higher latitudes, says South Dakota state climatologist Dennis Todey. He predicts the Southern and Central Plains—lower latitudes—will become drier, though.
Warmer weather and more rain bodes well for Todey’s state, which is expected to see more corn and soybean acres as the Corn Belt shifts.

"We can’t really associate recent heat waves or other individual extreme events with climate change," agrees Jeff Andresen, a Michigan State University climatologist. He adds, however, that recent weather phenomena are consistent with climate change model projections.

"The world is warming," he says, "and the techniques used to make those measurements are very sound."

As always, yields will vary from north to south and east to west. Overall, though, Andresen expects higher crop yields due to increased precipitation, milder winters and warmer spring weather as a result of climatic shifts.

Farmers know all too well that they can’t control the weather, but Andresen offers this advice: "Invest in tiling, if you haven’t already."

Hay Helpline

As drought continues to cripple the livestock industry in the Southwest, social media is linking hay buyers, sellers and truckers. The Hay Connection on Facebook is a flurry of activity, with more than 10,000 people participating in the exchange.

"I saw a need and took a few minutes to create a Facebook page," says Clint Round, Hay Connection’s founder. "It’s now a place for neighbors to help neighbors and friends to help friends to get through this tough time."

Here’s how it works: On the wall page, a poster first lists buyer, seller or hauler. Then town and state and what he or she is  in the market for.

Other hay pages and groups on Facebook include Texas Hay Connection, Texas Drought Hay Connection and Buy Texas Hay.

—Anna-Lisa Giannini

Next Drought Victim: 2012 Wheat Crop?

The cynics like to scoff that the Great Plains winter wheat crop dies a thousand deaths before setting new yield records, but the 2012 crop south of I-70 appears to be at risk of never getting started.

Wheat farmers in Texas, Oklahoma, southwestern Kansas and southeastern Colorado are reluctant to put high-priced seed into a bone-dry seedbed sitting atop bone-dry subsoil sapped by the driest and hottest 12 months on record. Then again, insurance rules require at least the effort of planting, so most say they will probably sow wheat—and hope for the best.

Just how hot and dry it has been in the Southern Plains is hard to overstate. Aaron Harries of the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers says the drought that cut the state’s normal yield this year shows no sign of abating. Even producers with summer fallow ground—in much of western Kansas, they farm only half their land each year—say they haven’t had enough moisture since the 2010 crop to support anything for 2012.

Gary McManus, Oklahoma state climatologist, paints a gloomy picture—"a pathetic sight," in his words—of wheat prospects there.

Over much of the drought area, wheat is a dual-purpose crop. Many producers plant in early September in order to get enough growth to support cattle through the winter. Then they harvest for grain. USDA has reported that only 6% of the U.S. winter wheat crop had been planted as of Sept. 11, behind the previous five-year average pace of 10%.

—Steve Cornett


For more weather-related news and the latest forecasts, visit AgWeb’s Weather section.



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