El Niño causing trouble in farm country

Mother Nature’s troubled son, El Niño, is back in the Southeast and he’s not a bit more welcome than he was when he made life miserable in 1982-83 and again in1997 for farmers from central Florida to the Mason-Dixon Line.

El Niño, or Little Boy as he is sometimes called, should be expected every 3-7 years, according the National Weather Service (NOAA). Unfortunately most of us don’t rank meteorology high on our interest scales and history of weather ranks even lower. For farmers planning their 2010 crop, El Niño should get some well earned consideration, however.

It usually lasts for a few weeks, but major events last for longer than a year. The prolonged drought in 1982 and into 1983 in the Southeast took plenty of farmers out of business and left others eager to invest in irrigation equipment. The drought was by most accounts the results of one of the longer-lasting El Niños of the century.

In 1997, the results of the weather bad boy wasn’t quite so profound, but it did create huge swings in weather across the U.S. and subsequently huge swings in crop pricing — just the kind of scenario farmers hate the most.

The hottest year on record in many parts of the world came in 1998 — the aftermath of the 1997 El Niño. Along with typical post El Niño heat comes drought. Heat and drought in the late spring and early summer in the Southeast can quickly take out corn, suppress peanut yields and even slow down more drought tolerant crops like cotton.

Later planted crops, especially soybeans, can suffer from lack of moisture and too much heat at planting time. Not many crops escape impact one way or another from the ‘little boy’.

El Niño isn’t all bad. I won a round of golf — who knows when the weather will be nice enough to use it — thanks to my limited knowledge of El Niño. A friend of mine manages the local golf course. He was complaining about the number of days his course had been closed. Knowing he is a stickler for record keeping, I bet him a round of golf that the course would be closed more days in January-February 2010 than any year since he became the manager (1992) and the next closest year for days closed in those months would be 1997. I won.

He wouldn’t take the bet that in the summer of 2010 he will apply more irrigation water to the course than any year since the summer of 1997. I’m betting I would have won that one, too.

He thinks I’m some kind of meteorological guru — even took my advice to not over-seed his bermudagrass greens. Rain and freezing weather would never allow for a decent stand I told him. Save your seed money and spend it on irrigation water this summer, I told him. He did — so far, so good.

El Niño isn’t always a bad thing. We typically have fewer hurricanes during the little boy’s visit. And, unusual weather in one part of the country can produce an equally unusual ideal weather season in other parts.

For farmers, the impact of El Niño’s return is considerably higher than a round of golf. Already, El Niño driven weather has helped produce a bumper grain crop in both North and South America. The price of soybeans for U.S. growers in 2010 will be directly influenced by the big South American crop. Worldwide supply of soybeans will be high and subsequently prices will be low.

Logic would dictate fewer acres of soybeans in the U.S. this year, but often the previous year’s high prices trump El Niño logic.

Corn is usually a benefactor of El Niño, primarily because most of it in the U.S. is grown in the Midwest, where weather conditions tend to be moderated by El Niño. Again, more corn, lower prices. In the Southeast corn growers could get double whammy from El Niño — low prices and poor corn yields.

Late fall rains and snows pushed harvest dates back so far that many growers had to get in the field to get their crops out. I know a few who listened to the New Years Bowl games on XM radio in the heated cab of their combine or cotton picker.

Needless to say picking cotton or combining beans isn’t a good deal from a crop standpoint. Worse, thousands of acres of land that has been in no-till for many years will have to be cultivated to clean up the mess made by getting heavy equipment on wet ground.

The lack of winter cover crops is going to impact the fertilizer costs of growing crops in 2010. More importantly, it’s going to affect the cash flow for too many farmers because the winter wheat crop simply won’t be there for many.

In the Southeast the one rule of thumb about El Niño and crops that seems to hold true this time around is wheat and El Niño just don’t get along well at all. Fall rains in October and November, followed by more rains, snow and ice from December through February have wreaked havoc on wheat, barley and other spring crops in the upper Southeast.

If the current El Niño weather follows previous little boy episodes in the 1980s and 1990s, the Southeast should have more rainfall well into the spring planting months. Spring rains will be followed by intense heat and drought as the latest little boy takes his leave.

I’m even less of an economics guru than a meteorological guru — despite what my golf course manager friend thinks. I don’t know how traditional this current El Niño will prove to be. If it follows El Niños of the past, growers need to be aware of the consequences of taking a lot of moisture into the planting season, adding more moisture from heavy rains in the early spring and then dealing with record heat and drought in the summer.

Which crops best fit the combination of agronomic adaptation to such weather conditions, combined with input costs and price for the crop, is a tough one to know. Farmers have been coping with the weather for a while now, so I’m confident most of them will figure it out.

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TAGS: Management
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