Weather data boosts county's farming outlook

Ray Mueller
Now Media Group


Jamie Patton proclaims that Shawano County is 'a hot diggity' place for growing alfalfa, corn and soybeans and for milking dairy cows.

Patton, who is the county's Extension Service agriculture agent, bases her opinion on a extensive review of the Shawano area temperature and precipitation data from 1893 through 2015. She shared those findings at the semi-annual farm management update for agricultural professionals sponsored by Extension Service offices in Wisconsin's east central counties.

Since Shawano County is located on the fringe of east central, northeast, and central agricultural statistical districts in Wisconsin, it's possible that Patton's findings also apply more widely within the state. She conducted the study in the context of documented changes in climate that are predicted to have significant effects on agriculture in many parts of the United States.

Steady temperature averages

Whether Shawano County has a micro-climate or not, Patton's review shows that there has been virtually no change in the area's average temperatures throughout the year for the past 123 years. Month by month, however, temperatures have turned a bit cooler from May to August, less cold in the winter and to greater variability during March.

During the major part of the growing season, the daily average temperatures of 72 to 76 degrees are ideal for growing alfalfa, Patton said. Similarly, the typical temperature ranges of daily highs between 77 to 90 degrees and nighttime lows of 62 to 74 are wonderful for corn because it stops growing when temperatures top 90 and because plant respiration depends on temperatures dropping into the 60s at night.

With dairy cows being most comfortable in temperatures between 40 and 65, Shawano County also offers many days in that range throughout the year. She noted that 80 degrees is too high for Holstein cows (Jerseys fare better) and pointed out that having the average nighttime temperature drop to 65 degrees in every month is very favorable for the cows.

Rainfall factors

One change that Patton noted is a gradual increase of the annual precipitation in Shawano County. She said this is good for the parts of the county which are covered by sandy soils.

Whatever the reason, it's clear that farmers in Shawano County have increased their number of corn and soybean acres in recent years and have enjoyed higher average yields during that time, Patton reported. She added, however, that heavier rains in late summer and early autumn have interfered with crop harvesting more frequently.

Wider weather view

If the projections based on climate change are accurate, average corn yields in the traditional Corn Belt states will be falling in the coming decades, Patton stated. She also cited an increase in crop insurance claims in Iowa for soybean crop losses due to excess moisture.

Those and other factors point to a northward shift of the ideal location for growing corn and soybeans, putting Shawano County and neighboring areas in a more favorable spot. But there are a few existing drawbacks, she warned.

One of them is a shortage of on-farm storage for corn and soybeans in Shawano and nearby counties, Patton pointed out. As a soil science and health specialist, she is also concerned with the risk for erosion and with the need to undertake agricultural practices which would increase soil organic matter. Each one percentage point increase in soil organic matter enables the storage of up to 25,000 more gallons of water reserves per acre.

To accommodate what nature is apparently poised to offer in the coming decades, farmers in Shawano County are among those who need to tend to their production and financial management skills, Patton suggested. She's confident that this can be accomplished with a combination of infrastructure support, education and the use of technology.