Volatile market prices and input costs, high tech precision farming and old fashioned hard work have made for a wild ride for farmers in the Upper Southeast the past two cropping seasons, but at the end of the day Mother Nature still drives the bus and paying attention to where she’s going can be the difference between profit and loss on the farm.

The past two years U.S. farmers have been simultaneously blessed and cursed by a lingering La Niña weather pattern. Depending on where you live and when you planted and harvested your crop, the past two years could be the best or worst on record.

La Niña was not a friend to West Texas cotton and peanut grower Russell Lepard. In 2011, his cotton crop finally popped out of the ground in mid-September, receiving not one drop of rain from the time it was planted in April until September.

In addition to the extended drought and accompanying record-breaking heat wave, Lepard says the wind was relentless.

“We are used to wind in West Texas — it’s a part of farming life. In more than 30 years of farming, I’ve never seen anything like last year. We had sustained winds of 45 miles per hour with gusts more than 60 mph for weeks and weeks,” he says.

For the West Texas grower, 2011 was clearly the worst of his farming career.

For Charles City, Va., grower David Hula it was a record year for corn production.

His 429.1 bushels per acre took top honors in the Irrigated Division of the National Corn Growers Association highly competitive annual yield completion.

Though exact records haven’t been kept over the lifespan of corn production in the Southeast, it’s likely the 429 bushels per acre is an all-time high for the region and fell just short of the national record of 442 bushels per acre.

The Virginia grower does a lot of things right — a must to compete annually for the high yield award.

In 2011, he says the key to his high producing corn was picking it the day before Hurricane Irene came ashore a few miles from his farm.

In order to pick it on time, he had to plant it on time and he had to plant a variety that would mature on time and produce high yields, which he did.

Damage from Hurricane Irene

Corn planted later was ravaged by Hurricane Irene and subsequently by a tropical storm. The difference in record-breaking corn and a crop devastated by high winds and torrential rainfall was planting date.

Perhaps more astonishing in the 2011 La Niña year, was the 288.5 bushels of corn produced by Jay Justice on his farm in Beckley, Va. Justice farms in multiple states in the Southeast, and his record corn crop in Virginia is more than matched at the other end of the spectrum by crop disasters in other states where he farms, and where the La Niña-influenced weather pattern produced terrible crops and in some cases no crops.

Florida State University Climatologist David Zierden explains La Niña and El Niño weather patterns:

“Ocean water temperature in a specific area of the Pacific Ocean affects global weather patterns. Warmer than usual water in that area creates El Niño conditions and typically wetter and cooler conditions across the lower one-third of the U.S.

“Cooler water temperatures, characteristic of La Niña, push thunderstorms westward and create drier and warmer conditions for the Southern U.S.”

Ronnie Heiniger is North Carolina’s corn specialist and a pied piper of sorts when it comes to helping farmers plan for the impacts of weather on which varieties of corn to plant and when to plant them.

Prior to each planting season he makes predictions on the weather in different areas of North Carolina and to a lesser degree in the Southeast.

Heiniger jokes with farmers about consulting his crystal ball to make weather forecasts.

In reality, he spends a lot of time studying weather history and analyzing recent weather patterns. His uncanny ability to predict the weather comes much more from long-term scientific studies than from divine clairvoyance.

Heiniger says 2010 and 2011, both La Niña years, produced similar results for corn in much of North Carolina, though both years were very much different in terms of weather.

“In 2010 we had some moisture at planting time and most growers were able to get their corn crop up and growing just fine. We went into the summer season with a little soil moisture, and as a result corn planted early did fine.

“Later corn that was subjected to heat and drought during the critical silking stage didn’t fare nearly so well.

“In 2011, we had no rainfall from January until the end of May, then we had a dry summer. Weather was as devastating to corn production in the state as it had been in 2011, but from a very different perspective,” Heiniger says.

Crop burned up

In many areas of North Carolina corn literally burned up before it ever made it to tassel in 2011. That’s highly unusual for the state, but a direct response to the La Niña weather pattern that has been in place the last two years.

The La Niña weather pattern took control of the weather in the Upper Southeast in May and June of 2010, thus late-planted corn and other crops never made it to maturity, because there was little or no rainfall and extremely hot and humid conditions.

In 2011, the La Niña continued, producing the early season conditions that devastated early-planted crops in the region. “By the late summer, the pattern weakened and growers got enough rain to get late-planted crops the moisture needed to produce a fairly good crop,” Heiniger says.

Typically La Niña weather patterns last 10-12 months, but strong La Niña’s lasting twice that long have been very common over the past 50 years or so.

“In the 1950s, late 1970s, early 1980s, and more recently in 1998-1999 weather in the Southeast has been dominated by double-dip La Niña weather patterns,” Heiniger says.

In a double-dip La Niña, which impacts crops over two growing seasons, growers need to take very different planting strategies and match these planting dates with varieties that will perform well when planted early and produce adequate yields.

Looking at yield results from variety tests tells a very different story. Clearly, later planted, later maturing varieties produced top yields in 2011. However, variety tests from 2010 provided growers with completely different high yielding varietal results, because best results came from varieties planted in late March and April.

In North Carolina in 2011 the best planting dates for corn yields were from mid to late May — totally different from a variety selection standpoint from 2010.

“Going into 2012, we should be at the end of the double-dip La Niña — triple La Niña’s are very rare,” Heiniger says.

“Growers are looking for more chances of rainfall later in the summer when the La Niña subsides. Therefore later planting dates are likely to produce the best results,” he adds.

Fortunately, the North Carolina specialist says, growers have some excellent corn hybrid varieties that can adapt well to later planting.

“What you want is a late-season hybrid with good early growth. You want to get corn out of the ground quickly, so it can compete for light and produce good growth,” he says.

Even though growing conditions are warmer and growing conditions are better, he says his research indicates starter fertilizer is a good kick-start for later planted varieties.

“And, the invention of Bt-containing corn hybrids is essential for later planted corn. Prior to Bt corn, we couldn’t even think about planting corn in late May, Heiniger adds.

“I want to stress that I’m not advocating planting corn late every year — it all depends on the weather. Even with La Niña, there are some growers who plant on good organic soils who should continue to plant early.

“Growers on sandy soils are a different story, and they need to pay special attention to weather patterns,” Heiniger says.

rroberson@farmpress.com