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Volatility paces long-term weather outlook

Jeff Caldwell 01/23/2012 @ 9:43am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

The chances of a repeat of 2011 crop weather in the Corn Belt's likely this year, and if that happens, it could be a lot harder on crop yields.

This winter's weather isn't far off from a year ago, and a lot of signs point to that similarity continuing through spring and summer, says Iowa State University Extension climatologist Elwynn Taylor, who chatted with attendees to the Land Investment Expo on Friday in West Des Moines. But, there will be one big difference.

"This year, we don't have the excess soil moisture like we did a year ago," Taylor says. "This time, if we go into the same type of summer we did last year, we will take a much bigger beating this year."

How big will that "beating" be? Taylor says last year's corn yield expectations for Iowa were around the 160-bushel-per-acre level and yields ended up at 148. This year's yield drag could well eclipse that, he says.

Specific to the state of Iowa, Taylor says western parts of the state could feel the worst of a repeat of summer 2011, while the opposite side of the state could be in better shape.

"If it is a drier year in western Iowa, you can count on crop failure. In eastern Iowa, they're not as dependent on daily rain, and it's more consistent so you don't have to rely on soil moisture storage."

Looking at the macro-level weather trends as they pertain to crop potential, Taylor says North America's entering into a period of extreme weather volatility. Since weather data's been kept, he says there's a repeating pattern of 25 years of stable weather followed by 19 years of volatility. We're in year 18 of the latter.

"Weather is risky this year. We're coming into a period of volatility we haven't seen in 18 years. You need to manage risk better than you have in the last 18 years if you want to profit from it," Taylor says, adding there are ample examples -- record heat and dryness in the southern Plains and record precipitation in the Ohio Valley in 2011 -- that foreshadow the kind of volatility ahead. And, not just during the summer months.

"We are headed for 20 years of hard winters unless the weather does something different than the last 800 years. La Nina has climbed to moderate strength again," he says.

The Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) shows a 40% chance the current La Nina trend continues into the summer. If that happens, expect an average national corn yield below 148 bushels per acre. There's a 70% chance, Taylor adds, that the SOI will remain in a La Nina cycle at any strength in the coming year. And while that's got its own ramifications for North America, it's even more influential to how things pan out in Brazil and Argentina.

"We're watching South America closely," Taylor says. "In southern Brazil and Argentina, we still have a very questionable situation."

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