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"Turn liabilities into assets:" Changing weather patterns present opportunities

Austin White
Ag Journal Online
Andrea Basche is an assistant professor of soil and water sciences at the University of Nebraska. As rainfall patterns change, some new crops might make sense for the Midwest and other geographic regions, she says.

An Arctic air mass that surged into the plains this week was considered exceptional for its duration, with cities like Omaha recording its longest streak of teens and single digit temperatures since the 1980s.

Generally, though, the overall trend has been warmer, which could expand the growing season and present new opportunities if managed right, according to Andrea Basche, an agronomist and cropping systems specialist at the University of Nebraska.

Basche was a speaker during the recent University of Colorado Colorado Springs grain school forum, hosted in conjunction with Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and the Colorado Grain Chain.

Based on the fourth national climate assessment, wet areas of the country are expected to become wetter, while dry regions become drier.

“We’re living that future right now,” Basche said.

In Nebraska, average temps are expected to increase from 2 to 5 degrees in the next decade or two, with more warm days and fewer cold days ahead.

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That could lengthen the growing season by up to 25 percent, she said.

It’s an opportunity, but one that will likely require managing resources differently in the future. One of her key research areas involves how to best improve water infiltration rates to reduce flooding and capture more of the water from highly variable rainfall events, which are increasingly the norm.

In particular, she has been looking at how adding various plants into cropping systems can help manage weather-related risks.

Along with climatic changes have come shifts in seasonal precipitation, with more rain arriving in winter and spring and less in the summer and fall. That has important implications in the Midwest, where most farmers grow summer annual crops that mature in early to late fall.

“Maybe this is a chance to grow different crops in new regions,” she said.

One example in her area is chickpeas, which are now being grown along the Missouri River. Other crops, which might be more closely in sync with changing rainfall patterns, include grains, other types of legumes and alfalfa, she said.

In addition to taking advantage of precipitation when it is more readily available, these crops also improve soil health, which increases water infiltration rates.

What happens on the surface of the soil is critical to regulating the entire water cycle, she said.

Eastern Nebraska clearly has different challenges than eastern Colorado, and she acknowledged the difficulty of building soil organic matter in a semi-arid climate. But she also noted it is especially important to have good infiltration rates where rainfall events are sporadic.

She also noted that dual-purpose crops like Kernza, a perennial wheatgrass developed at the Land Institute in Salina, Kan., could help farmers navigate the economic uncertainties by adding more diversity into their farming operations.

Bob Quinn, of Big Sandy, Mont., can vouch for the importance of being willing to change over time and embrace new opportunities.

Despite the perilous cold that blanketed the upper Northern Plains this week, Quinn said a warming climate overall has allowed him to start growing crops his forebears never could.

When Quinn’s great-grandfather moved from Eastern Washington to north central Montana in 1919, he brought with him the tradition of summer fallowing — leaving the ground idle for a year to collect rainwater before growing a crop the following year, he said during the grain forum.

“It worked well in the beginning, until the ‘30s, and then it turned into the Dust Bowl,” he said. “That was a disaster.”

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His family permanently retired their plow and turned to chiseling to undercut weeds without turning over the soil. Fields were also planted in strips to reduce erosion. When Quinn took over the farm, he converted it all to organic regenerative agriculture, rotating cash crops with soil-enhancing legumes.

As the winters have become more mild — and the summers hotter — Quinn has started experimenting with planting spring crops in the fall, including spring wheat and safflower.

The open winters have even allowed him to experiment with planting in January, a happy medium between the two, which typically results in outcomes not quite as good as fall planting but still better than planting in the spring, he said.

Developing irrigation has never been an option in his area, due to the salt content of the groundwater. But Quinn has learned to work around the limitations.

He found when growing tomatoes that if he spread them out with three times more space than typically recommended, they would produce at the same rate.

“We have one-third the plants in the same area, but our rainfall compared to the Midwest is also about one-third,” he said.

The warmer, drier summers have also allowed him to grow watermelons, an option he never had before.

“If you’re not changing, you’re not really organic,” he said. “We’re in a time of more rapid change now, and it’s important to look for opportunities. Turn liabilities into assets — that’s what I try to do."