South Dakota farmers face less rain, longer growing season

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Farm Forum

While farmers are currently in need of the weather to warm up and dry out, Laura Edwards, SDSU Extension climate field specialist, is taking the long view.

Edwards and Renee Wise, of the National Weather Service, shared data on May 16 at the Chamber Ag Committee held at the Brown County Regional Extension Office that supports the notion of longer growing seasons, less rain and increased potential for weeds and pests.

A recent survey of 4,800 farmers, some from eastern South Dakota, acknowledge that the climate is changing — a controversial topic despite some interesting data:

• The number of days above 90 degrees and below minus 20 has been on a downward trend. Wise shared charts from the weather service plotting the temperature extremes that go back to 1895.

• The trend is also down for the number of days with significant rainfall events, which would be considered more than an inch, Wise said.

Those farmers who were surveyed report they are worried about drought and are concerned about managing and mitigating issues through changes in practice.

Edwards said that, with longer growing seasons, farmers might have the opportunity to take advantage of planting seeds with longer growing periods and maybe make use of fall-planted cover crops. The frost-free season is 10 days longer on average. Both earlier spring freeze and later fall freeze contribute to the longer season.

If those trends continue, there will be opportunities and challenges for agriculture, according to Edwards. While there may be increased yields, it will be offset by potential weed and pest problems and disease issues.

Tornado activity

Just how significant an increase in tornado occurrences may be, can’t be determined as yet. Another chart showed the number of tornado incidents in South Dakota has been quite low for the past few years. Historically, that doesn’t last for more than two to three years at a time, often resulting in an upward spike.

Some attending the May 16 meeting questioned whether the warmer and wetter conditions predicted would be almost like priming the pump for tornado activity.

Wise said that such conditions would not necessarily mean that there would be outbreaks of violent weather, but that would depend on short-term weather events when colder air would clash with the warm air.

Wise also pointed out that the lower number of recorded tornadoes prior to 1950 has more to do with the absence of reports rather than weather patterns. This is true nationally as well. Prior to 1950, lower population density and lack of weather equipment prevented the weather community from knowing about many tornadoes, especially the weak ones, Wise said.

Climate change

Emissions of carbon dioxide and methane are identified as the main sources of greenhouse gases, Edwards said.

What can farmers do to address climate change?

No-till practices or minimum tillage of the soil can provide huge benefits, but there are many farmers who say that, with cooler temperatures in the spring, they need to till the soil to get their crops planted in a timely manner, Edwards said. Making use of precision ag techniques and improved technology may help to counter some of the issues.