Prepare for storms that push your farm to the limit
Strengthening your farm for the future is key as you battle weather extremes such as the 2019 bomb cyclone in Nebraska; the 2020 derecho across Iowa; hurricanes; sustained drought; or unseasonably cool, wet weather.
The ultimate unknown is Mother Nature, but researchers like Gene Takle, professor emeritus of ag meteorology at Iowa State University, have studied climate change long-term and know its effects on farming.
Absolute humidity and nighttime temperatures have increased in all seasons, Takle says. Because of these changes, the growing season is lengthened and more suited to planting seed with longer maturities. The advantage to farmers is higher yields. The increase in rainfall poses challenges during the most vulnerable seasons – spring and fall.
“Since the 1980s, we’ve seen remarkable rainfall increases in Iowa during April, May, and June,” Takle says. “In the past two years, we’ve also noted increased rainfall in October and November, which is a pattern we don’t yet understand.”
Wet springs mean limited windows to get crops planted. Wet autumns lead to more soil compaction, which affects how the soil performs the following spring.
To survive unpredictable storms and adapt to climate change, turn to resources like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s (UN-L)Weather Ready Farms program.
Weather Ready Farms is a one- or two-year program that helps lower a farmer’s risk to weather losses. It determines what vulnerabilities on the farm can be addressed to better protect land, crops, and finances against weather extremes.
Participating farmers in eastern Nebraska fill out a self-assessment, attend educational opportunities, and complete a verification process to achieve the “Weather Ready” designation.
“Issues in agriculture like climate variation affect management decisions, the economics of the farm, and also mental health,” says Ashley Mueller, disaster education coordinator at UN-L.
Weather Ready Farms evaluates disaster and succession planning, mental wellness, erosion control, water management, variable-rate irrigation, and more.
Mueller and other experts at Nebraska Extension have been refining this designation program since 2016. It is designed to provide collaborative learning for farmers with individual recommendations based upon each participant’s operation.
Extension professionals and partners review the self-assessment, emphasizing that it’s a guide, not a test.
“It isn’t meant to tell someone what they’re doing is wrong,” Mueller explains. “Rather, it helps put the focus where there are opportunities or gaps to overcome.”
Mueller says this allows farmers to identify practices they’ve wanted to put in place but haven’t been able to because they lack the capacity. The Extension staff members work specifically on the farmer’s goals and help address the obstacles to adopting new management plans.
The second step is education via Extension programs and partner events. Weather Ready Farms currently focuses on crop production, so topics like climate literacy; management of soil, water, pests, and crops; and disaster and emergency planning and preparedness are available.
The third step is to prioritize areas on the farm to put new practices into place. These are verified by a third-party provider, and if approved, the farmer receives a Weather Ready Farms designation.
Mueller says the current data Weather Ready Farms has collected through the pilot program will help expand its reach.
Pilot Program and Future of Weather Readiness
Will Corman is a third-generation farmer near Hardy, Nebraska, and is one of the four farmers in the pilot.
“There is no normal year anymore,” Corman says. “The weather is more extreme and unique every year. We look at how to position our farm to better manage the peaks and valleys, and the Weather Ready Farm program provides some insight for us.”
Corman’s father, uncle, and cousin work together on nearly 5,000 acres of corn, soybeans, and wheat. They have six center-pivots to irrigate some of the land, and they also run 100 head of fall cow-calf pairs.
The farm has been no-till since the late 1990s. Corman’s father and uncle were some of the first farmers in the area to make the switch to conservation tillage. As the Cormans have increased their acres over the years, they’ve made sure to integrate terraces and controlled drainage into their operation. They continually evaluate practices that manage water flow,minimize erosion, and keep nutrients in the fields.
In south-central Nebraska, moisture is one of the biggest yield contributors, so any practices that conserve moisture are key.
“Uniform crop residue from no-tilling helps us most without sacrificing any moisture,” Corman says. “We have a wide-spread spreader on the combine instead of a chopper that evenly throws coarse residue. I’ve seen how that coarse layer keeps the soil moist and the conditions even compared with a chopper’s fine residue strips. The fine strips could cause more variability.”
The coarse residue is easier to cut through with today’s no-till planting and seeding equipment.
Nebraska weather, like any state, throws curveballs, and Corman relies on revenue crop insurance to protect the areas where they can’t afford to take big risks. Wind and hail insurance also has the potential to further protect against storm damage.
“We didn’t experience the extremes from the derecho in 2020 like in Iowa, but that same storm damaged about 30% of our acres,” Corman says.
One of Corman’s strategies that made a significant difference protecting his crops from the high winds of the storm was spreading out seed maturities.
“As the August storm passed through, two of our fields planted with the same hybrid one week apart, 1 mile apart, withstood the winds very differently,” Corman says. “The field planted earlier was fine, but the other was about 50% green-snapped.”
Corman says every corn plant is susceptible to wind damage depending upon the hybrid. You can’t predict where a storm will hit, so he recommends reducing risk by considering each hybrid and spreading out the maturities planted across the farm.
“We’ve planted as low as 101-day corn all the way up to 120-day in the same year. We plant a variety across our fields so we won’t have any more than 20% to 30% of our acreage vulnerable at one time,” he says.
He also employs precision ag technology to strategize crop management decisions and increase efficiency. Corman uses nitrogen inhibitors to prevent volatilization when broadcasting, and he injects concentrated bands to prevent runoff.
Corman works to protect his investment and livelihood in the short term, but takes pride in stewardship and the future of the land. “We know we’re saving our inputs and protecting the environment now, but the most rewarding part of doing the dirt work and conservation ourselves is shaping that ground for the next generations to come.”
Make a Plan for Natural Disasters
Instead of jumping into crisis mode after an event, following a specific and structured plan will help you experience less stress and gain efficiency. One plan can be adapted in cases of fire, hail, tornadoes, and so on. Start by answering the following questions:
- What role do you, your family, and other employees have after an event?
- How do you keep records (photos, assessments, bills, etc.), and where are they stored?
- What is your insurance policy and requirements?
- What local organizations (fire department, police) must be contacted?
- Who contacts whom?
Write the plan and communicate to everyone how to access it when needed.
Weather Ready Farms Evaluates:
- Reduced or no tillage
- Minimized fall nitrogen application
- Use of nitrogen inhibitors
- Diverse crop rotation
- Cover crops
- Split nitrogen applications
- Drainage tiles
- Availability of first aid kits
- CPR training for family and employees
- Secure farm business data
- Succession planning
- Map of field locations and directions
- Availability of emergency information
Diversify Your Crops
Nathan Mueller, Nebraska Extension cropping systems educator, recommends diversifying your crop rotation to better withstand unpredictable weather. “If you plant only corn and soybeans and experience a drought in July, that hot, dry weather is going to affect both crops,” he says. “Instead, if you plant winter wheat or alfalfa, you create a built-in buffer since the weather may not affect those crops in the same way. You could end up with a revenue stream to replace what you lost.” Mueller says this strategy is a long-term systems change, but diversification then allows farmers to plant a cover or forage crop and improve the soil quality.