Farmers adapt to changes in weather patterns

Gloria Hafemeister
Climate change or weather cycles?  Farmers say weather has always gone in cycles.

WISCONSIN DELLS – Researchers have been seeing a significant change in weather patterns in the last few decades. More extremes of rain, heat and cold have been occurring and that could influence agriculture in the future.

Dr. Chris Kucharik, a climate researcher at UW-Madison, says farmers need to pay attention to these changes in weather and find ways to adapt.

Speaking at the Discovery Farms annual conference in Wisconsin Dells, Kucharik and Dr. Paul Mitchell  a professor in the UW-Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics suggested that weather changes, combined with the current state of commodity markets and the economics of common agricultural systems present challenges to farmers. They shared their thoughts on how farmers can be resilient in the face of these challenges.

Most Wisconsin farmers remain skeptical about climate change, according to surveys; although data show they have already begun adapting to shifts in weather patterns.

Farmers, the scientists said, are key actors in adapting to climate change or mitigating its effects. They manage 61 percent of the nation’s land. They are vulnerable to droughts, cold, heat and hail.

“Farmers are at ground zero for climate change but they don’t believe in it,” said Mitchell.

“First thing about climate change: Don’t talk about climate change,” Mitchell said. “Whatever language you need to use to work with your audience — that’s the language you would use.”

Findings of a national study in 2012 indicate that 60 percent of farmers believed climate change was either mostly natural, not happening, or they were uncertain about it.

The survey did not examine the reasons behind farmers’ views, but Mitchell said he had seen enough controversy to know that “it’s not a scientific issue; it’s a political position.”

In Wisconsin, climate change over the past half-century has meant fewer very cold winter nights, more annual precipitation overall, and a steady rise in the number of extreme rainfalls.

Kucharik points out that for farmers, the growing season has lengthened by one to four weeks since 1950.

Farm practices changing

Corn and soybean yields have risen, as has year-to-year variability in those yields. Some of the increase is due to better practices and technology, but earlier planting explained nearly a quarter of the increase in yields from 1979 to 2005, according to data from Kucharik, who regularly gives talks on climate change to farmers and others.

Kucharik says very heavy rainfalls have increased in recent years and that makes it harder for farmers to manage erosion and runoff.

He suggests that there are a variety of ways farmers can respond to these changes in weather trends such as introducing cover crops and doing less tillage.

Better soil management through the availability of newer tools could help as well as choosing from the wider diversity of hybrids and varieties available that respond to unique conditions such as excess moisture or not enough moisture or warmer soils.

Increasing rotations is another way of dealing with changes in weather.

“Think about looking at ways to reduce problems with phosphorus loading and use less fertilizer to begin with by incorporating perennials into the landscape,” he suggests.

Dr. Mitchell did not seem worried about how farmers would adopt to weather pattern changes. He says, “Farmers have a long history of adopting technology and practices that help them adopt to a changing world. Weather is just one of the changes.”

He notes, “Whether you believe in climate change or not, farmers have always figured out ways to deal with weather.”

He suggested leaving the reaction to climate change possibilities to farmers. “A farmer led program works the best. We can’t just try to convince farmers to change their ways.”

He said there are new technologies appearing every day. As an example, he mentioned a new tile system that allows excess water to drain away but holds water when it is extremely dry.

The advancement of equipment and the increase in the size of equipment also allows farmers to plant, treat or harvest crops faster in order to stay ahead of predicted weather threats.

“Pay attention to the weather forecasts,” he notes. “Do things at the right time or plant stress-tolerant crops. Improve the water-holding capacity and draining capacity of your fields by improving soil health.”

March weather

The Discovery Farms program has monitoring runoff from extreme rain events on farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota.  Their research has shown that the top ten percent of surface runoff events accounted for 46 percent of the total runoff and 59 percent of the total nitrogen, 65 percent of the total phosphorus, and 80 percent of the total soil lost on the sites monitored. 

Most runoff took place during storms of an “expected size,” not extreme events.

Their monitoring also indicated that extreme rainfall events did not significantly impact edge-of-field nutrient losses.  In fact, 70 - 75 percent of surface runoff, total phosphorus, and total nitrogen losses were not driven by extreme runoff. This shows that runoff events resulted from common rainfall events or snowmelt.

Snowmelt is still a significant part of the water budget and decreases the influence of extreme rainfall events in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Discovery Farms research has shown that over half of the surface runoff measured in both states occurred during frozen soils and snowmelt conditions. This is an important time for phosphorus and nitrogen movement even though soil movement is limited with snowmelt.

With that in mind, farmers are reminded that timing of extreme rainfall matters. If extreme events occur earlier in the year it would likely increase their impact on surface runoff.

For those who need to manage manure on the farm, these are important factors to consider.

With that in mind Discovery Farm researchers remind farmers that March is the riskiest month for applying manure to a field. 

Think about these things: avoid manure application shortly before snowmelt or runoff; consider placement — incorporate without disturbing the soil so much as to cause soil runoff; identify lower-risk fields if manure must be applied in March.

Temperature also influences manure application. Cooler soil slows bacterial activity and decreases the risk of nitrogen losses. The use of a nitrification inhibitor will reduce the activity of nitrifying bacteria if manure must be applied in fall on warmer soils.

Establishment of a cover crop takes up some nitrogen for putting growth on before winter. Harvesting that cover crop for extra forage may also open up another window for manure application.