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How to Manage Weather Risks

Farmers try new practices to manage risk.

Imagine Midwest farms without corn. Impossible, right? Wet springs, summer droughts, and odd weather patterns have made growing the staple crop trickier in recent years. 

Raising the climate-change flag hasn’t been helpful. That term is often a polarizing conversation stopper, says Chad Ingels, Extension program specialist in Fayette, Iowa. However, farmers become engaged when the talk is about weather variability, extreme weather events, and how to best farm during those events.

“Beliefs about climate change (if it’s real and what or who causes it) are across the board, but weather variability unites them all,” agrees Hans Schmitz, Extension educator in southwest Indiana.

Both men are involved in a five-year USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)-funded Sustainable Corn research project in its final year. Besides surveying farmers from nine Midwest states about their opinions on climate change, 150 scientists from 10 land-grant universities and a team of Extension educators have been working with farmers on developing best-management practices.

“We are looking at corn-based cropping systems, especially the corn/soybean rotation. We are trying to find ways of increasing climate resilience under increasingly variable precipitation and temperatures. How can you manage that rotation to reduce risk, have a productive crop, and assure the integrity of your soil and water resources?” asks Lois Wright Morton, project director. “Productivity is important – but not at the expense of the agroecosystem.”

The professor of sociology at Iowa State University notes the Sustainable Corn study is one of three USDA NIFA-funded projects in the U.S. The other two focus on sustaining forestry in the South and wheat in the Northwest. 

Wright Morton’s sociology department’s first task was a random sample survey of farmers about their perceptions.

“Two thirds of farmers say climate is changing in the Midwest. The other third said they didn’t have enough information. Only 8% of all farmers surveyed say it’s mostly caused by human activities (with 4% saying it wasn’t occurring at all). The rest say it’s mostly natural changes or a combination of human and natural,” Wright Morton says. 

Regardless of opinion, it wasn’t difficult to get farmers interested in trying and adapting different practices to manage risk.

Tried-and-true practices

Fortunately, the tillage and other soil-management practices that will help a farm adapt to the effects of climate change are those that have been promoted for years, says Dick Wolkowski, University of Wisconsin soil scientist emeritus.

“I hope folks will try new and different practices,” he says. “Go for the low-hanging fruit – practices that have a greater chance for success and don’t cost much. Some examples are no-till into soybeans, planting a cover crop after soybeans, and adding row cleaners to a corn planter to allow planting into heavier residue.”

Dick Sloan of Rowley, Iowa, started growing cover crops in 2011. That’s after he and neighboring farmers organized a performance-based watershed group to get Lime Creek off the impaired waterways list due to the loss of native mussels.

“We used the soil conditioning index and Iowa phosphorus index with end-of-season stalk nitrate testing to see how tillage, rotations, and fertilization practices affect organic matter and nutrient losses. I added cover crops to improve both,” he explains.

He is on the advisory board of the Sustainable Corn project and has great respect for science and practices recommended from extensive research. Sloan has been impressed by no-till fields with corn-on-corn for 30 years that support weight and have healthy soils. 

He’s willing to try a few things on his own.

“I planted corn into green cover crops last spring because covers were short due to a cool fall and spring. Killing covers just before emergence worked out fine,” Sloan says.

Wright Morton notes that many management practices work well for flooding and dry conditions. 

“Putting in cover crops deals with a number of issues,” she says. “They hold soil against erosion, scavenge excess nitrogen (N), and serve as a buffer in reducing the impacts of flooding. Cover crops when burned down or incorporated into the soil increase organic matter and improve soil-moisture holding capacity in dry periods.”

Different issues

Producers from Missouri, north to Minnesota, and east to Ohio are involved in the Sustainable Corn project. They all need to adapt production practices for their climate and farm.

With land in two counties, Chris Mulkey, Poseyville, Indiana, is a great example of successful flexibility. “In one county, it’s black, low ground that floods; the other county has high, sandy fields that have wind erosion,” he explains. 

Though past practice has been to only tile the wettest areas, he installed a tiling system every 60 feet.

“At $800 an acre, it’s expensive, but it really seems to help,” Mulkey says, noting it’s a common practice in the area now.

On his sandy land, he switched from row crops to alfalfa to eliminate wind erosion and, in the process, developed a successful horse hay market.

On wetter fields, deep-rooted cover crops such as radishes bust through the hardpan and drain water, he says. In a region where double-cropping (wheat followed by soybeans in July) is common, the challenge is to get cover crops in the rotation. 

In the Northern states, having time to put in a cover crop after just one crop is a challenge.

“Our climate scientists understand there is need for local weather and climate information,” says Wright Morton. “Industry and land-grant university scientists are working on producing downscaled climate data that can be used in creating apps and improving technologies for farmers’ decision making.”

Long-term mind-set

When methods such as heavy tillage have been used successfully for hundreds of years, changing the mind-set
is challenging.

“The biggest barrier is that changing a single management strategy affects the rest of the operation. You have to change everything else,” says Extension educator Schmitz.

For example, the NRCS has been explicit that fall N application is problematic, Wright Morton points out, especially when wet springs cause flooding and it washes into waterways. There is generally more time to apply it in the fall after harvest than in the spring. Yet, producers have been changing that practice to split applications at planting with a June side-dressing to reduce the loss of N and to provide more nutrients to plants when they need them.

When farmers realize that N – and their money – is being wasted with fall application, it’s easier to change practices. 

“The first thing a variable climate teaches us is that we are managing a system. System management recognizes that it takes more than one year to build soil,” Wright Morton says.

“The big feedback from the survey is that farmers don’t look at planning for long-term climate impacts. They are more focused on this season,” says Extension program specialist Ingels. 

Sloan believes farmers are more open to the long-term planning message when they see other farmers who are committed to growing cover crops, using less tillage, adding buffers, and incorporating other soil building practices like those in the project. He recalls attending a field day right after it had rained 2½ inches.

“Farmers are listening,” he says. “When they live through these extremes, they just can’t farm the way they have.”

Indiana producer Mulkey agrees. “I’m a good steward of the land, and I want to leave the ground better for my kids. The land in my area is $13,000 to $14,000 an acre. I’m not selling it; I want to hand it down.”

Adapting to change

According to scientific research, only about 8% of the greenhouse gases (caused by carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides that hold more heat on earth) are related to agriculture – from cattle to manure management to carbon breaking down. 

“Planting corn after soybeans is the greatest contributor of carbon. Corn has more biomass, so you are putting more in the atmosphere,” Wolkowski says. No-till is an effective strategy for retaining soil organic carbon because it reduces erosion and carbon losses that occur with tillage.

While the Sustainable Corn project indicates most producers aren’t convinced they can change or control the climate, they are showing more interest in innovative farming approaches to reduce risks related to weather, Ingels says.

Though the study ends this year, Schmitz notes that information from 160 recorded interviews of farmers will highlight themes and reflect changes they are willing to make. Likewise, crop farmers like Sloan are eager to hear what scientists and researchers from multiple disciplines have learned and what they recommend for keeping land productive during extreme weather.

“The take-away message is that agriculture will always have changes, always have a set of risks. Farmers who want to be successful have to be willing to change what they’re doing and always be thinking about systems,” says Wright Morton.

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