Extreme farming

2013-07-18T08:00:00Z 2013-07-19T09:37:29Z Extreme farmingBy Gene Lucht Iowa Farmer Today Iowa Farmer Today
July 18, 2013 8:00 am  • 

FAIRFIELD — Crops have been looking better the past few weeks on Jerry Main’s farm here, but 2013 still marks the sixth consecutive year of extreme weather and disaster declarations for his area.

You can’t change the weather, Main says, but year after year of extremes make farming a bit more difficult.

Mike Burkhalter, a young farmer who works with Main, agrees.

“You just do the best you can and move on,” Burkhalter says.

But, there is some question whether farmers

might need to move on in different ways.

During discussion about the possibility of climate change bringing more extreme weather and of other long-term weather patterns that include periods of extremes, it might be useful to start thinking about how to deal more thoughtfully with future extremes in temperature or rainfall.

At least that’s the way Jerry Hatfield is starting to look at the situation.

Hatfield, executive director of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment (formerly the National Soil Tilth Lab) in Ames, says there are serious questions that need to be asked if weather extremes are to be a part of the picture for farmers.

“I think there was more erosion this spring than I’ve personally seen in the last 10 years,” Hatfield notes.

While farmers can’t change the weather, he adds they can change practices to deal with weather extremes.

For example, he says many soils in the Midwest are fragile with low organic-matter levels and low residue-cover totals. Even government requirements for residue cover are only about 30 percent.

Perhaps that figure should be higher for many farmers, Hatfield says. Perhaps more cover crops are needed.

Maybe policies or best-management practices need to be revised to better deal with the issues related to more weather volatility.

Protecting and building up the soil are good ways of dealing with weather volatility, he says. Even if volatility doesn’t become the norm, those changes in soil protection and structure would still be good for farmers and the environment.

For his part, Main says the multiple years of weather-related disasters in his area are being reflected in reduced 10-year average yields and, as a result, lower crop-insurance payouts.

“It’s making it really tough,” he says.

Whether changes are made in policy or in on-farm practices, there is little doubt the weather has been volatile the past two years in the Midwest.

In this case, State Climatologist Harry Hillaker says the numbers don’t lie.

The normal average spring temperature (March-April-May) is 48.3 degrees. In 2012 it was 56.1 degrees (a record) while in 2013 it was 43.7 degrees (the fifth coldest on record).

Meanwhile, it’s no secret 2012 was a drought year in Iowa.

In contrast, the rainfall total for the three-month spring in 2013 showed a statewide average of 17.66 inches of rain, compared with a normal figure of 10.66. That was a record, demolishing the old high of 15.36 inches in 1892.

In 141 years of recordkeeping, April and May this year were the wettest April and May in history.

The only two-year period that is even close to comparable came in 1901 and 1902.

Of course, this doesn’t indicate what will happen next year or even the rest of this summer, Hillaker adds.

Twice before, he says a cool and wet spring turned into a hot and dry summer. That happened in 1947 and 1983.

That’s one thing Main hopes does not happen this year.

However, he says weather volatility is an issue for farmers, and it is one that might be difficult to deal with.

Hatfield hopes farmers start talking about how they might change practices to improve soil structure and protect themselves and their fields from possible future weather extremes.

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