When Weather Gets Dangerous

January 23, 2016 02:02 AM
 
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Farmers prepare for what’s next amid volatile conditions

Imagine waking up to the threat of rising water from the Mississippi River, only to hear you’ve got three days to move all of your belongings out of harm’s way, including all the grain in your bins. That was reality for many farmers across Missouri and Illinois recently as wild weather caused waters to rise to record levels. 

Southern Missouri farmer Eric Doza says he and his neighbors had just a few days’ lead time to empty their grain bins before the waters arrived. For the first time, Doza sold all of his grain in one day, and he says it won’t make him rich.

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Farmers near Rockwood, Ill., move equipment to escape the floodwaters.

“Will I make some money? Probably,” Doza told “AgDay” TV news reporter Betsy Jibben. “Will I make a lot of money? No.” 

The same week, dairy farmers and cattle ranchers from the Panhandle of Texas throughout New Mexico rushed to prepare their herds for Winter Storm Goliath, which would become one of the most devastating blizzards to hit the region in years.

“The day of the storm, our main concern was our cows,” says Tara Vander Dussen, who milks 10,000 cows with her family in New Mexico. “We couldn’t work hard enough or fast enough to keep up with conditions, and it was devastating to know we couldn’t take better care of our cows.” At press time, the Vander Dussen farm had lost 18 cows and 50 calves in addition to six tankers of milk worth $80,000.

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    In preparation of the storm,      Dutch Road Dairy, Muleshoe,      Texas, used milk tankers as wind  breaks to shelter cattle.      

Robert Hagevoort, a New Mexico State University Extension dairy agent, says farmers and their employees were out in -16°F weather fighting for the safety of their animals. (Read another farmer’s account of Winter Storm Goliath, and the role of Facebook, in "Finding Facebook in the Storm.") Unfortunately, some couldn’t do enough. The death toll among dairy and beef cattle in Texas and New Mexico was estimated to be as high as 40,000 head at press time. 

Total production losses are yet to be known, Hagevoort says. Time will tell, as the animals that survived are treated for pneumonia, frostbite and mastitis, conditions that might not materialize for days or weeks.

Meanwhile, ranchers in the area searched high and low for lost beef cows, even turning to social media for help. Officials with Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association estimate 12,000 beef cattle died during the storm. Blake Birdwell, a rancher from Muleshoe, Texas, experienced the devastation first-hand. He lost 15 cows in a snowdrift and, after the storm, could locate only 3,000 of the 13,000 head of cattle that had been grazing on wheat pasture. 

Despite these severe events, on the whole, winter got off to a relatively mild start, including the warmest November and December on record. It was also the wettest December on record, says Jake Crouch, climate scientist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It was quite an exceptional month in terms of temperature and precipitation,” he says.

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 Snowbound calves peer from  hutches after Goliath struck.

December also marked the 10th consecutive month of above-average U.S. temperatures, Crouch adds. This weather was powered by a warm El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) in the second half of 2015.

The continued strength and length of El Niño could fuel a positive 2016 growing season if it lasts long enough, says Elwynn Taylor, climatologist and professor at Iowa State University. Midwestern farmers usually fare well when this happens, he adds, seeing above-trend yields for Midwest corn and soybeans 70% of the time.

On the contrary, if El Niño wanes and gives way to La Niña conditions next summer, that can cause less-than-ideal crop conditions, Taylor says, such as in 1983 and again a few years later, when drought-stressed crops were the big summer story. That has caused at least one weather prognosticator, Bill Kirk, CEO of Weather Trends International, to call for $7 corn later in 2016 due to bad weather.

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 A Dutch Road Dairy worker  uncovers calf hutches buried by  the snowstorm. The roof of one  is visible in the foreground. 

“Unfortunately it only gets much worse in 2016,” he says. “Your risks include later planting in 2016, with cooler and wetter weather likely to set up after a very warm, below-average snowfall winter in the Corn Belt as El Niño collapses.”

According to Taylor, there’s no historical precedent that La Niña must follow El Niño, however. The previous La Niña period lasted from 2010 to 2012, longer than the typical nine to 12 months. El Niño events are much more common, he says.

Some weather agencies, such as Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, think El Niño has been showing signs of peaking since mid-January. The bureau says a repeat of El Niño is the least likely next outcome, with a 50% chance to turn into neutral ENSO conditions, and a 40% chance to devolve into La Niña conditions.

Whatever shakes out in 2016 for farmers and ranchers, Doza and Vander Dussen know all too well—it’s a good policy to pray for the best but prepare for the worst. 

For full coverage of 2016’s wild weather, including “AgDay” TV videos, photos from farmers, weather forecasts and apps visit www.FarmJournal.com/winter_weather

 

 

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