Facing a rough climate

Farm Forum

Corn Belt farmers need to brace themselves for a continued drought cycle and other volatility, an Iowa State University (ISU) meteorologist said on Jan. 22.

Dr. Elwynn Taylor spoke to the AgriVisions conference, sponsored by First Dakota National Bank, at the Kelly Inn. Taylor teaches ag meteorology at ISU, works with disaster response and serves as consultant for financial, legal and agricultural firms and agencies.

From 1925-2011, the Corn Belt has seen four stable weather periods, each 18 years long, alternating with four erratic periods, each 25 years long, Taylor said.

“2011 was Year 18 of the stable period,” he said. “If the weather continues the way it has been, we have just entered one of these (25-year) periods of volatility.”

In that case, farmers need to adjust not only their planting but also their financial planning, he said.

“All the (risk management) practices during the last 10 years was just practice,” he said. “Use it, and you’re likely to make these years of higher volatility to be one of higher profit.”

Taylor offered a number of climate outlooks.

“There is an increased possibility of harsh winters for the next 20-plus years. It’s switching to give us a return to the harsh winters on a par with the 1960s,” he said. “There is (likely to be) less than a full recharge of Midwest soils over the winter. And an El Nino during the growing season is not probable.”

Those conditions create concerns for the upcoming planting season, he said.

“Midwest crops are likely to be, on the average, better than 2012 but not up to (historical) trends,” he said.

Long-term weather patterns have remained positive for areas west of Interstate 35, running from Minneapolis-St. Paul and Des Moines to Kansas City and Dallas-Fort Worth, he said.

“Climate change has been favorable for Minnesota, the Dakotas, western Iowa and Nebraska,” he said.

Based on historical patterns, he sees continued harsh conditions for southeast South Dakota and Nebraska when it comes to both the weather and farmers’ financial situation.

With the current drought, the Corn Belt would need 16 inches of moisture to offset the moisture deficit, he said.

“We’re not likely to get back up (to that level) this year,” he said. “It will probably take more than one year to get over the trend line (for corn production).”

Taylor spoke of severe drought cycles running every 89 years. The worst recorded years in the western Corn Belt have fallen in 1847 and 1936.

“Look out for 2025,” he said. “If there is a year like the Dust Bowl this century, this year (2025) is the most likely.”

In regards to the more immediate future, he displayed satellite pictures from Jan. 21. He showed the falling levels of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, which has limited shipping for corn going down the river and fertilizer back upstream.

The situation could reverse itself with the right conditions, he said. When the soil moisture gets back up to normal, it recharges the wells and rivers, he added.

Moisture has greatly affected planting choices, Taylor said. He used the example of Southern farmers who have chosen corn over the traditional rice crop because of weather and prices.

“It was a good year for rice – if we planted it. But we planted corn,” he said. “It was the highest yield of corn that those states ever had. The South was above some Corn Belt states. And they’re not planting rice again (in the South).”

However, he looks for those states to return to rice production in the future.

“In the long run, places tend to grow what grows best there,” he said. “Eventually, they will go back to rice.”

Modern agriculture practices have allowed farmers to produce steadily rising yields, including corn at 200 bushels per acre, he said. The trend reverses a history of depleting the soil with each crop, he said.

“We can improve the soil while we have the production from the soil,” he said. “We have never done that before in history. We have reached sustainable agriculture.”

However, drought trends appear likely to take a continued toll on corn yields, he said. Normal weather would produce a trend line of 160 bushels an acre, but last year saw a trend line of 123.4 bushels an acre.

“2013 is likely to be better, but still our fourth year of below-trend yields. And that follows six years of consecutive record yields,” he said.

Taylor spoke of the government programs and their response to prolonged drought. With the “fiscal cliff” and federal deficit, lawmakers may look at scaling back or eliminating some farm programs, he said.

Farmers have also become a shrinking minority of the nation’s population with less political clout, Taylor said. However, the urban areas can’t survive without a dependable food supply, he said.

“Farming is the most important industry on this earth,” he said.

No matter what the future brings, producers have shown the ability to roll with the punches, Taylor said.

“We’ll survive and do just fine,” he said.