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Shifting El Niño Trend Foreshadows Early Spring -- Forecasters

The weather world's been talking for months about the prospect of the southern oscillation index tilting from La Niña to El Niño, a shift that normally signals more crop-friendly, mild and moisture-plentiful weather for the Midwest.

But as time's passed, those prospects have dimmed. Now, weather experts say a move back to El Niño may not happen within the next calendar year, if it does at all. Just in the last month alone, the likelihood of El Niño developing in the next 2 months or so have declined sharply, according to International Research Institute for Climate and Society chief forecaster Tony Barnston.

"Based on the latest models, the chance of an El Niño developing during the current (January-March) season is around 63%, down from 76% last month. These odds for the current season are similar to those issued by the NOAA Climate Prediction Center/IRI forecast on January 8," Barnston says. "The recent dip in sea-surface temperatures could be indicating an end to the El Niño conditions forecasted for much of the past year. Despite signals of an emerging El Niño from the ocean and atmosphere at various times throughout 2014, the systems of the sea and sky have yet to couple."

This doesn't mean a wholesale shift away from conditions typical of an El Niño system; it simply means the likelihood of the hallmark conditions of El Niño dominating the weather are lower. That has some ag weather specialists speculating that crop moisture could come up short in some of the areas that depend on the critical upcoming spring months to refuel soils that most of the year are parched.

"Chances for an El Niño continue to fade. Since [February through April] marks the beginning of the wetter portion of our year, it is of great interest. Unfortunately, the precipitation outlook is neutral for most of the state. That means it is equally likely to fall in any of the three categories: Above normal, normal or below normal," says Kansas State University climatologist Mary Knapp. "Only the western portions of the state have an increased chance of above normal precipitation. While this would be welcome, even above-normal precipitation will result in limited improvement to the drought situation in the region."

And, there are temperature implications in her state of Kansas, too, Knapp adds. "The 6-10 day, 8-14 day, and 3-month outlooks are all showing an increased probability of cooler-than-normal temperatures. This does not mean that the excessively cold temperatures of early January will be repeated. The most favorable pattern would be to have the cold weather dominate in February rather than April."

Despite the potential negative implications of a move away from El Niño for parts of the nation, including central and western regions, there are bright sides to a more neutral southern oscillation index (SOI). Farmers are already speculating that this spring could see an earlier-than-normal start to spring planting, and weather experts agree based on the SOI's movement -- or lack thereof -- lately.

"We could be looking at neutral conditions later this spring and summer. Following a weak El Niño, into the spring and summer, we generally see a drier pattern in some areas of the delta and possible into the ohio valley for the spring," says Harvey Freese, ag meteorologist with Freese-Notis Weather, Inc. "The drier weather pattern could allow for early planting. Summer looks to be warmer with less than normal rainfall in some areas of the Delta and southeast. We could see above-normal rainfall in some areas of the northern Corn Belt."

The prospect of early planting is a welcome one for many farmers, especially those who fought Mother Nature to get last year's crops in the ground on time. But, it's a double-edged sword; on one hand, planting may go much more smoothly than the last 2 years, but on the other hand, such a departure from the recent norm could slam grain prices that are already struggling to stay in positive territory and will likely continue to do so through spring.

"Corn doesn't necessarily have to bid acres even though we know if the growing season is average at best, it will wish it would have. Soybeans have more cushion and will be the go-to crop for those tight on operating capital or farming junk ground. First step will be what crop insurance sets at," says Agriculture.com Marketing Talk veteran advisor Mizzou_Tiger. "An early spring might help balance this bean thing. Interesting acres situation we have to deal with too. 2012 and 2014 combine corn and beans was 174. Hard to imagine this 177 number some are using especially when FSA and NASS are not reconciled yet. Guess what I am saying is, hedge wisely. We could likely see a whipsaw. Bouncing up into early spring. Tank it as planters roll. Bring it back in late summer if forecast holds. We have had 2 bigger crops in a cut input environment going into 2015. Add in some stress and stocks-to-use could get interesting."

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