“It’s like flipping a coin. During La Niña events, for example, rainfall differences in north Alabama are completely different from those of south Alabama,” she says.

Through a series of studies, Ortiz has developed a nuanced picture not only of how these climate patterns play out throughout the state during critical crop productions periods, but also what growers should do in response.

“What I want to do is help characterize climate patterns in a way that farmers not only understand how these effects are likely to play out but also the best management practices they can follow to optimize their opportunities during El Niño cycles or, in the case of La Niña patterns, to reduce their risks.”

A big focus of Ortiz’s has been on wheat, the crop typically under production during the times of year when these patterns exert the greatest effect in Alabama.

In the course of several studies, Ortiz has helped put together a clear picture not only of how these two patterns are expressed in temperature and rainfall variation throughout north, central and south Alabama but also how they affect winter wheat yields.

She’s complemented these efforts with a series of wheat variety studies through which she’s gained a clearer picture of the best management practices that should be adopted, mainly in terms of planting dates and variety selections.

Her ultimate goal is using all of this data to develop a highly interactive and accessible management tool.

“What we ultimately hope to do with all of this is provide farmers with a clear picture of best management tools based on all these different scenarios,” Ortiz says. “Using data provided by these tools, they will be well equipped to identify the wheat varieties best tailored to their planting times and growing conditions.

“Basically, we want to convey to producers how they can take advantage of optimal weather patterns and, during less desirable periods, what they can do to minimize their losses.”

In those off years when El Niño patterns prevail, producers are often better off planting wheat merely as a cover crop and saving the nitrogen that otherwise would be used with wheat for a more profitable crop, she says.

Ortiz isn’t stopping there.  She also wants to complement these best-management practices with ways to reduce water, carbon and nitrogen footprints. She is also working with scientists from several disciplines to develop a series of best management practices to better equip producers to deal with the enhanced disease and insect damage that often accompanies weather patterns.

All of her efforts are driven with one idea in mind: Using this greatly enhanced picture of climate to enable growers to take maximum advantage of good conditions and to reduce the effects of bad conditions.