Growers used to be able to rely upon predictable weather patterns during the growing season. Here in the Southeast, for instance, growers used to rely on a consistent summer rainfall to help their crops . However, over the past 4 or 5 years, growers have experienced wild swings in weather patterns, ranging from severe drought to heavy rains dumping more than three inches at a time.
The Southeast isn’t the only region seeing a change in weather patterns:
Alaska had its hottest March on record this year and experienced a summer heatwave, where temperatures hit 90 degrees in Anchorage.
In February 2018, a month’s worth of rain fell in the Midwest… in 48 hours.
In the first five months of this year, California’s drought ended with a 150 to 200 percent increase in rainfall compared to 2018.
What impact does the weather have on farming?
Record high rainfall can cause severe nutrient depletion or denitrification of the soil. Standing water, in particular, can cause denitrification, or the loss of nitrogen as a gas to the air. In 2013, growers in North Carolina abandoned thousands of acres of farmland because excessive rainfall depleted the nutrients in the soil and replacing those nutrients wasn’t worth the high cost.
Plants are growing larger & faster
Adding to the problem is the changing climate and the increase in Carbon Monoxide levels. The rising carbon monoxide levels are causing plants to grow larger and faster.
“As carbon increases in the atmosphere, there will be higher rates of evapotranspiration, and to maintain yields, more and more irrigation will be required. This will put more pressure on water resources.” Stephen Long, a crop sciences professor at the University of Illinois
Irrigation requirements are changing
A recent corn study conducted by NC State concluded that changing weather patterns are causing wild fluctuations in rainfall that occurs throughout the growing season. Their analysis focused on a 30 year study of rainfall amounts per month and per day from April until August. In the first 25 years, there was a consistent, predictable rainfall pattern during the growing season on a monthly and daily basis. This allowed growers to rely on a forecast model and limited the need for irrigation. However, over the last 5 years of the study, even though the total precipitation amounts have stayed relatively the same, the daily rainfall amounts fluctuated wildly. More than 5 years ago, it was normal to see a small amount of rain 4 to 5 days per week. More recently, there is more time between rainfall events, but more rain falls when it does come.
What are farmers doing about it?
Farmers with waterlogged fields need to check the nutrients in their soils by soil testing. These tests help farmers to identify which nutrients need to be replenished in the offseason. Potassium, nitrogen and sulfur are nutrients often depleted by heavy rainfall. Magnesium and zinc are a lesser known nutrients that your soil might be lacking.
Changing weather patterns have forced many growers to rethink the way they irrigate, sometimes even adding additional irrigation equipment to their operation. Growers that previously never required irrigation have been forced to purchase irrigation equipment to combat shifting weather patterns so they can stay in business.
In addition to the irrigation equipment itself, growers are also incorporating technology to help them decide when to irrigate and how much irrigation they should apply. Essentially the tools they’ve incorporated, including flow meters, weather stations, drones, and soil moisture sensors, help them optimize their water use. Madera County California Almond grower Tom Rogers is one of many growers adapting to the ever-changing weather patterns.
“In the right circumstances, moisture sensors can save a (central pivot) turn in a single week. Beyond diesel savings, remember that equipment, labor, time, and pickup trips are all affected,” Chris Henry, associate professor and water management engineer at the University of Arkansas (UA) Rice Research and Extension Center.
Growers around the world know they have to adapt to the changing weather patterns or they will not be able to survive. Water is and will always be the biggest X factor in crop production. As many of us say, “There isn’t an average year in farming.”
We can’t depend on weather information from the past to help us determine what we should expect in terms of rainfall.
We can’t make irrigation decisions like we used to.
The past is just that - the past. Adding a little bit of technology to your farm will help you adjust to the weather changes we are all experiencing. Growers know it, and the world is depending on them to make these changes in order to feed the planet.