What is in this article?:
• For Kirk Brock and Myron Johnson, the search for an edge in making a living on the farm means thinking beyond the afternoon weather and putting confidence in science.
ALABAMA GROWER Myron Johnson talking with Wendy-Lin Bartels, an anthropologist with the Southeast Climate Consortium.
Pay attention to Pacific
"We very strongly encourage farmers to pay attention to what the Pacific Ocean is doing and plan using the climate patterns El Niño and La Niña can bring." In the winter and spring in the Southeast, those patterns are warm and dry for La Niña and the opposite for El Niño.
"Going into last winter (2010-2011), there had been an abrupt change over the summer from El Niño to one of the strongest La Niñas (we've seen). Based on the strength of the La Niña, we came out with a pretty confident forecast it was going to be a dry winter and warmer than normal," Zierden said.
He presented that forecast at the August 2010 row crop meeting. A number of farmers, including Brock and Johnson, made decisions based on what they heard.
For Brock, the decisions were about how he spent the fall. Knowing that conditions were likely to be dry, he put in extra hustle to get his cover crops planted earlier in the fall. "We wanted some fall growth from those crops because we thought there was going to be a winter drought," he noted.
Ultimately, the dry part of the forecast was borne out. However, the warm part wasn't. "It was cold as all get out," he chuckled, recalling the winter and early spring from 2010-11.
What threw off the temperature forecast was another climate phenomenon that isn't as predictable as La Niña, but no less important to the Southeast's climate. The pattern, known as the North Atlantic Oscillation(NAO), was in a negative phase through most of the winter and spring of 2011.
"In north Florida and south Georgia, the NAO primarily affects temperature," Zierden explained. "It brings a pattern that really allows these Arctic fronts and cold air masses to come down and impact the area."
Unlike La Niña, the NAO is highly unpredictable and changes from positive to negative without much warning. That mercurial nature makes it next to impossible to capture in a seasonal forecast, and is in part why the expected warm temperatures didn't materialize.
For Brock, that meant his cover crops grew slower than normal. Still, he felt confident that rains that traditionally fall across the region at the end of June could help him get back to normal.
Zierden's forecast at the next row crop meeting in February 2011 seemed to bear that confidence out, with a return to normal conditions expected by June.
"The meetings definitely influenced the idea of when we're going to terminate the cover crops," Brock said. "Are we going to kill them on March 1 or March 31?"
With Zierden's forecast and his knowledge of the region's climatology, Brock went forward and knocked down most of his cover crop in the first 10 days of March. This preserved soil moisture, which turned out to be even more crucial than anticipated.
That's because the strength of the La Niña meant its drying influence lingered until late July. "While the winter and spring dryness was predicted, that (early) summer dryness was not predicted," Zierden explained.
On Brock's farm, he saw sporadic showers rather than the widespread rain. Those sporadic rains gave him enough moisture to plant peanuts and corn.
"But then the drought took hold in May and June and really stunted the corn growth," Brock noted. "In the end, the yield was decreased. Corn was down 25-30 percent." His peanut yields were near average, helping him cover the difference in his corn yields.
Had he known about the dry May and June, Brock says, he would have done things a little differently. Cotton is much more drought tolerant and also tends to have a higher value than corn or peanuts. Though Brock generally doesn't grow as much of it compared to the other crops, he would have made an exception last