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How To Cope With Climate Change

I know what you’re thinking. Climate change is just some figment of Al Gore’s imagination. A communist-socialist-liberal plot hatched by gaggle of Third Reich eco-Nazis aiming to run the U.S. economy into the ground.

Well, maybe. Still, ask yourself these following questions.

Are springs getting wetter?

They sure are in central Iowa. Jerry Hatfield, director of the USDA-ARS (Agricultural Research Service) National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment at Ames, Iowa, examined central Iowa spring precipitation over two time frames. Workable field days in April through mid-May decreased 3.5 days in 1995 to 2010, compared to a 1979-to-1994 time frame.

“The stress that puts on producers with less workable field days is tremendous, he says.

Are droughts increasing in severity?

They sure are in Oklahoma. Historically, more precipitation falls in the spring and fall, with more arid conditions prevailing in winter and summer. This pattern helps germinate winter wheat in the fall and launch it breaking dormancy in spring.

No more. “We are losing some reliability of our early-season precipitation that drives wheat-based cropping,” says Jean Steiner, director of the USDA-ARS Grazinglands Research Laboratory in El Reno, Oklahoma. Drought-stressed plants have also run into early-season freezes that have decimated the crop.

“This has been a shift, and it may not hold,” adds Jeanne Schneider, research meteorologist at the same USDA-ARS lab. “But there has been wheat failure after wheat failure, due to dry springs and late spring freezes.”

“Whether you think this is climate change or just bad weather, you still have to adapt to it,” says Clay Pope, a Loyal, Oklahoma, farmer who is the executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts. “ Some guys don’t believe in climate change, but they do believe in drought.”

Are rainstorms increasing in intensity? 

Again, this is the case in central Iowa, Hatfield found. From 1900 to 1960 in Des Moines, Iowa, just two years had more than 8 days were more than 1.25 inches of rain fell. From 1960 through 2013, seven years had more than 8 days hitting the 1.25 inch threshold. Increased spring precipitation and rainfall intensity fuel other maladies.

“Soils become more anaerobic, so seedling diseases become more prevalent,” Hatfield says. “You also get more soil erosion with all the runoff from the field.”

When droughts end in Oklahoma, they end with a bang. “Southern Blaine County  (in northwestern Oklahoma) received more than 12 inches of rain in 32 days, adds Schneider, who also heads USDA’s Southern Plains Regional Climate Hub. “This is the average annual total that basically fell in a month.”  

What’s Going On?

Droughts and floods have occurred since man shifted from hunting and gathering to farming over 12,000 years ago.

“It’s not that we are seeing things that have not happened before,” says Schneider. “It’s just that they are happening more often. This increased variability is the new normal.”

Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists -- fueled by over 10,000 peer-reviewed studies -- concur manmade climate change is occurring. That was backed by a recent final draft of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released earlier this summer. It stated continued emission of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide will cause further warming and changes in all climate system components.

Mention that to many farmers and farm groups, though, and you’ll be greeted by shaking heads and rolling eyes. Reality dictates otherwise.

“In our area, I just think climate change is one of the most important factors impacting agriculture,” adds Don Halcomb, who farms near Adairville, Kentucky with his wife Meredith and sons John, Sam and his wife Stephanie. ”I think we are poorly served by farm groups on this issue.

He notes efforts like the campaigns that killed cap-and-trade legislation several years ago -- cost agriculture. Under this legislation, farmers would have been paid for sequestering carbon through methods like no-till. This is one way to reduce gases like carbon dioxide that fuel greenhouse gasses.

“They (cap-and-trade opponents) complain it will cost us in the short run, and ignore the facts,” he says. “In 2012, when drought impacted Texas, it caused a $5 billion loss in agricultural production. Cargill had to close a slaughter plant due to lack of cattle. There is a cost to addressing climate change, but not addressing it also has a cost.”

Risky Business

Meanwhile, the suits that run agricultural companies are closely eyeing it. Last fall, Greg Page, Cargill’s executive chairman joined former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and former Senior Managing Member of Farallon Capital Management Tom Steyer to issue a report called “Risky Business: Our Nation’s Economy At Risk Due to Climate Change.”

The report found that without adaptation, yield declines of more than 10% might occur in some Midwestern and Southern counties over the next 5 to 25 years.

“Several years ago, we commissioned a group of our scientists to look at climate change, develop models, and talk to other scientists about what we needed to do for the future, adds Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer. They found even small 1 to 2 degree F changes on a microclimate level can prompt an insect to hatch, or a disease to infest a field.

“So, we put more effort into breeding for disease, and breeding for insect traits,” says Fraley. “We also are looking at soil microbes to alleviate (plant) stress and nutritional problems that are weather related, and finding new ways to protect seeds from fungal diseases and insects. We want farmers to have ways to protect seeds from fungal agents. “We want to have famers to have the tools to mitigate changes in weather and environment.”

Good News

If you’re worried that some fed is going to shut your farm down because it’s emitting too carbon dioxide, High-yield agriculture can co-exist with sequestering greenhouse gasses linked to climate change.

“There are two ways to measure agriculture’s greenhouse and climate change footprint,” says Paul Vincelli, University of Kentucky Extension plant pathologist.  “On a per acre basis, agriculture doesn’t look that good. There are lots of energy inputs in an agricultural production system.”

Remember, though, that people eat food, not acres. On a carbon emission per unit of corn, agriculture looks a lot better.

For example, U.S. corn production has risen from 138.6 bushels per acre in 1994 to this year’s estimated 170 bushels-plus per acre. Meanwhile, agricultural greenhouse emissions have been flat for decades, says Vincelli.

Upshot: If you want to slice greenhouse gas emissions, take steps like increasing plant populations or controlling disease to raise yields. “Carbon emissions are divided by units of production. Anything you do that improves productivity increases the productivity side of that ratio.”

However, this comes with a caveat -- intensification also must be sustainable and economical, too. Raising corn populations to 50,000 plants per acre (ppa) when 35,000 ppa is the optimum rate won’t work. Still,

Still, modern agricultural practices that hike yields can also be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is a general recognition among most scientists that intensification of agriculture has environmental benefits, says Vincelli.

The Brown Revolution

Agriculture’s Green Revolution between the late 1940s and late 1960s used plant breeding and other tools to increase worldwide production worldwide. What’s needed now is a “Brown Revolution” that revolves around soil health, says Pope.

“That will give us the resilience crops need to adapt to adapt to extreme weather and be prepared for climate change,” says Pope.

Short-term, Hatfield says management steps like no-till and cover crops can boost climate resiliency by:

  • Reducing soil water evaporation. “A residue layer will decrease evaporation by 50 to 80% compared to tilled soil, “says Hatfield.

  • Increasing water infiltration.

  • Protecting soil from intense rainfall.

Long-term, this can:

  • Raise soil organic matter content. “Boosting the organic matter in six inches of soil 1% is like adding 1 acre inch of water to the landscape, says Don Reicosky, a retired University of Minnesota soil scientist.

  •  Increase crop water availability. Research suggests field residue can save 2 inches of water, which can translate into an additional 12 bushels per acre of more wheat, says Bob Fanning, a South Dakota State University plant pathology field specialist.

  • Increase planting rooting depth.

How To Do It

Production practices that can help accomplish these benefits include:

No-till. It’s a way to retain soil carbon that otherwise could spew into the atmosphere and contribute to greenhouse gases.

“No-till helps sequesters .5 metric tons of carbon dioxide per acre per year,” says Pope.

Meanwhile, soil carbon helps key many soil processes and functions. “It impact water use efficiency, soil structure and nutrient cycling,” says Reicosky. “All are is important to the crop in terms of nutrient uptake. Soil carbon nurtures the soil bugs and microbes that chew up biomass in order to provide nutrients to plants.”

Switching from conventional tillage to no-till isn’t easy though.

“It costs a lot of money to convert from conventional tillage to no-till,” says Pope, who along with his brother and father switched to no-till 11 years ago. It’s also harder to economically justify with wheat compared to corn and soybeans. Wheat normally has less value than row crops, he notes.

“The reason we did it was our machinery was all worn out, he said. “It cost over $120,000 to buy a planter and a sprayer.”

In some cases, though, help is available. In the Popes’ case, funds form the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) helped them purchase the sprayer.

Crop diversification. A different crop mix may also be a way to withstand more volatile weather. Diversifying the corn and soybean desert that pervades the Corn Belt has been difficult for a third crop. Other areas may be able to do this, though.

“We can’t grow summer crops (like corn) west of I-35 like in Illinois and Indiana,” says Pope.

Still, soybeans accessed increased summer moisture this year in northern Oklahoma. Potential exists for rotating milo with winter wheat, although this can compound strategies where famers graze stocker cattle on winter wheat.

“We are seeing rapid incursion of canola in the wheat belt,” adds Stiener.  “It gives farmers with a long history of wheat production to start a rotation. It is compatible with existing equipment. Canola also has potential to be grazed.

Cover crops. They can stoke plant microbes and provide erosion cover when sandwiched between cash crops. In Oklahoma, for example, cover crops can shade stubble and save water between winter wheat harvest in late June and planting in September.

What works one place, will not work in another area, says Schnieder.

“Cover corps also are not about planting one type of seed,” she adds. “It’s about planting two or three in a mix and also being able to graze them, says Schneider.  You have to look at your soil and weather as to determine the best mix of cover corps and how they can fit in a rotation with winter wheat.

What’s Next

Climate has and always will be the greatest stressor of agriculture. What's changed is that climate variability will be the norm rather than exception," says Hatfield.

That's why you need to take steps to boost soil health through conservation agriculture. "Conservation agriculture offers a viable solution to overcome the (weather) variation we will be experiencing in isn't the future," he says.

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