Lower Weather Risk Ahead

January 13, 2010 10:00 AM

The brewing El Niño weather event may do a favor for farmers in 2010. While heavy spring rains created significant planting delays across the Corn Belt the past two years, a moderate El Niño this winter could help keep some of that moisture at bay.

An El Niño weather event usually includes diminished precipitation, particularly in the eastern Corn Belt, explains Mike Halpert, deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center.

"The El Niño force gives us a normal pattern throughout the U.S. that favors wet conditions in the South but drier than average conditions in the Ohio and Tennessee River Valleys, predominantly in the winter and spring,” Halpert says.

The latest El Niño event has been developing since midsummer 2009. If it persists through this summer, weather will be less of a risk factor for crops than during a normal or La Niña summer, says Elwynn Taylor, Iowa State University Extension climatologist and professor of agricultural meteorology.

If El Niño conditions persist, the estimated national corn yield will be 169 bu. per acre, Taylor says. If El Niño neutralizes by June 1, corn yield will be 160 bu. per acre, which is 2% more than the 30-year trend.

That bodes well for grain markets, says Jim Bower of Bower Trading. However, if the weather turns adverse like it did in 1983 or 1985, producers should be prepared for a wild market ride, he says.

"The whole world has built a grain market demand base over the last 13 years, and we've only had one crop below trendline in that time period,” Bower says.

Drought Risk Low. El Niño can also take credit for milder summers in the Corn Belt, along with the lack of a widespread drought across the Corn Belt, Taylor says.

"Currently there's not much drought in the country,” Halpert adds. "The majority of the drought is in the Southwest and California, and I do think that will ease as we move through the rest of winter and spring rolls around.”

Halpert also says winter temperatures will be mild across the central and western parts of the nation, with above-normal temperatures in the northern tier. For the spring, the only signals for above-average temperatures are in the western, southwestern and northern states.

Summer does moderately favor above-average temperatures in the West and Southeast, he adds.

Planting Clues. Subsoil moistures are the first indicator of the potential for spring planting, and as of Nov. 1, most of the soils in the Corn Belt were at capacity for plant-available water, Taylor says.

This past year also marked the third consecutive fall with ample soil moisture, Taylor adds. For the most part, the weather outlook going into 2010 is promising.

Meanwhile, Midwest farmers should keep an eye on the weather patterns to the south during early spring to help peg planting dates, Taylor says.  

"Often, conditions in Arkansas some four to five weeks before optimal planting time in the Midwest give a good estimate of the developments to come to the north and northeast of Arkansas,” Taylor says. "That is wet conditions in March in Arkansas will result in wet conditions in the Midwest in April and May.” 

Help for Dry Areas.
Conditions should be different for the western Corn Belt where slightly above average winter precipitation is predicted from northern Texas to eastern South Dakota. Parts of Texas are still dealing with drought conditions, and the extra moisture could bring relief before spring.

Additional winter moisture will help some drought-afflicted areas, says Fred Gesser of Planalytics, a business weather intelligence company. The soil moisture profile will reverse for California and Texas, compared with the same time in 2009, he says.

"Drought-impacted areas will see favorable conditions or even conditions that are possibly too wet for planting for the start of the 2010 growing season,” Gesser says.  

Gesser points specifically to potential delays in planting early cotton in southern Texas.

Planting Predictions
Drier than normal conditions will prevail across the Northern Plains, signaling an earlier start to spring planting in 2010.

The lower Midwest region will see below-normal precipitation heading into spring.

Moisture patterns across the Deep South point to a late spring planting start for early crops due to wet conditions.

Quick Facts
> The term El Niño means "Christ child” and was first used by Peruvian fishermen in the late 1800s to describe the warm current appearing off the western coast of Ecuador and Peru around Christmastime.
> Today El Niño describes the warm phase of a naturally occurring sea surface temperature oscillation in the tropical Pacific Ocean in the northern tier.
> In the 1991, a strong El Niño developed and lasted until 1995.


Top Producer, January 2010

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