You are here

Hot Topic: El Niño's Back Stronger Than Earlier Thought -- Forecasters

The talk around much of the Corn Belt and Plains the last couple of weeks has been Mother Nature's latest tantrum: She let a lot of planting happen earlier this spring, but now she's got the planting window locked shut in much of the area where farmers have corn and soybeans to plant, and is making things awfully tough for the winter wheat crop to turn golden and fill its heads as anomalous and sometimes heavy rain continues to fall.

But, summer's on the way...eventually...and should bring warmer temperatures and more sunshine, 2 things the crops in much of the nation's central third desperately need. Though that need is high, it may be a while before it kicks in, and when it does, it may not be as warm as normal. That's because the long-anticipated El Niño is finally materializing into more than just a weak formation. New data show it could be stronger than earlier expected, and that could mean a cool, wet trend for this summer's Corn Belt weather, forecasters say.

"According to the NWS Climate Prediction Center, El Niño has arrived and has a 90% chance of staying this summer and an 80% chance of remaining through the end of 2015. In terms of strength, this El Niño is expected to be weak to moderate. Illinois is expected to have an increased chance of cooler-than-average conditions in the late summer and on into fall," says Jim Angel, Illinois state climatologist. "The El Niño event has arrived (finally) and heavily influenced the NWS climate outlooks released this morning. For June (first map below), the Southern Plains are expected to have an increased chance of cooler-than-average temperatures. A large part of the US is expected to have an increased chance of wetter-than-average precipitation, including the southern two-thirds of Illinois."

An outlook like Angel's reflects the anticipation of a stronger system to move into place; since speculation began that the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) was transitioning from La Niña to El Niño about 2 years ago, most have expected El Niño to come on in a weak way, in fact just barely tilting that way from the median between the 2 and yielding just slight changes in the overall weather trend. But, the trend has moved toward a stronger formation of El Niño, and though it's still mostly in the "moderate" category at its strongest, the latest outlooks mean the mercury may not push too high this summer in much of corn and soybean country.

"Most models have trended even stronger with the forecast for El Niño in the coming months, with the average of the statistical models showing a moderate event later this year and the average of the dynamical models showing a strong event," says MDA senior ag meteorologist Kyle Tapley. "A moderate El Niño is still most likely during the summer months. El Niño summers feature above trend corn and soybean yields in the U.S., although there have been exceptions to that general rule."

In general, El Niño means good crop yields in the Corn Belt, especially for soybeans. In the last 15 El Nino years, corn yields have been above trend in 8 of those years, while soybeans have surpassed trend in 11 years. Though the frequency is higher for above-trend soybean yields, the yield bump for corn is greater, according to MDA data. The last time El Nino was present in 2009, U.S. corn yields were more than 8% higher than trend, while soybeans were 5.6% higher than trend. And, that was a "weak" year. The last time a "moderate" El Niño was in place in 1972, average U.S. corn yields were almost 19% higher than trend.

But, the trend is not bulletproof. Case in point: The last time a "strong" El Niño was in place, in 1997, U.S. corn yields fell 2.2% lower than trend. In 1951, a week El Niño led to 11.4% subtrend corn yields. In 1953 -- a weak El Niño year -- soybean yields were just shy of 10% lower than trend.

0527elninoevents.jpg

Chart courtesy MDA Weather Services.

Based on conditions right now -- some fields in near-perfect shape while others are "swamps" -- a growing number of farmers say though general crop conditions are okay now, they may not stay that way for long, especially if wet, cooler-than-normal weather keeps up. And, a stronger El Niño system could provide exactly that. If the current start to the growing season is any indication, that could spell trouble for some areas where there are or will be a lot of corn and soybeans in the ground.

"There are not enough beans planted on that 150-mile stretch to keep a backyard flock chickens in protein through the winter," southwest Iowa farmer and Agriculture.com Marketing Talk advisor Hobbyfarmer says of an area stretching from southern Iowa to the Nebraska border where he recently traveled. "Big soybean yields out of June-planted fields that have been too wet all spring will be the exception. Saw lots of big center-fill planters just waiting for the chance to go a day or two too early and add compaction to the list of things that limited yields this year."

Read more about