The weather forecast for the weekend just past was for rain, possibly a thunderstorm. I remember hoping that we would get the latter; such would make me feel more comfortable making my first fall frost forecast.

Crop Comments: El Niño and La Niña – Rumble in the raftersOn the afternoon of April 14 as we were driving to Oneonta, we encountered enough rain to merit keeping the windshield wipers on a medium setting. While we were shopping, suddenly there was a loud noise overhead that very much resembled a lot of people running in place. Looking down the aisle to a glass door, I saw heavy rain hitting the parking lot. The loud running-in-place noise was caused by thunder, which had been preceded by lightning. This rumbling sound persisted on and off for about a half-hour.

This electrical storm was caused by the southern branch of the northern jet stream surging northward. In this event, a moisture-laden air mass slammed into a drier, colder air mass. This merger caused huge amounts of condensation, and similarly great electrical activity, as well as a rapid drop in air temperature.

So exactly one-half year later, the jet stream is supposed to do the exact opposite, allowing a frigid air mass to plunge into our region. That said, we should experience a killer frost on/about Oct. 14.

Scientifically, here’s the basis for this first fall frost forecast (FFFF). The climatological factor calling the shots here is the jet stream polar drift rule. This states that the first serious springtime electrical storm (in latitudes near the 45th parallel, halfway between the equator and the north pole) will be followed six months later by autumn’s first killer frost. The 45th parallel runs through Canton, NY.

That’s how the jet stream phenomenon is supposed to play out – unless El Niño and La Niña “misbehave.” El Niño is said to take place when the Pacific Sea surface temperature (PSST) rises by more than 1.5º C above normal for that particular time of year. La Niña is said to occur when the PSST is said to drop by more than 1.5º C below normal for that time of year. With the climatological tug-of-war between El Niño and La Niña being relatively normal, I’m fairly comfortable making that FFFF for six months hence.

The dynamic between El Niño and La Niña is framed by climate change. With increasing global surface temperatures, more droughts and increased storm intensity become more likely. As more water evaporates into the atmosphere, such becomes fuel for more powerful storms developing. More heat in the atmosphere and warmer ocean surface temperatures can lead to increased wind speeds in tropical storms. Rising sea levels expose higher land mass locations not usually subjected to the power of the sea and to the erosive forces of waves and currents.

With all this having been said, this weather happening makes me feel comfortable predicting that six months from April 14, our area (most of Central New York) can expect its FFFF on/about Oct. 14.

Having just made a hopefully intelligent estimate at how much frost-free growing season lies ahead, let’s examine another sign of spring awakening: shad blossoms. Their full-bloom status means it’s time to get the cold-tolerant plant seed into the ground, if you haven’t already done so. As of April 15, most shad trees were approaching (or had achieved) full bloom. If the ground is dry enough – such that light tillage kicks loose some dust – it’s time to plant perennial forages, accompanied by their spring small grains.

University of Vermont Extension agronomists stress that spring-planted cereal rye won’t set seed and produce grain, but that it can be valuable as a forage crop. These scientists recommend that folks needing high quality, rapid-growing roughage – either mouth- or mechanically-harvested – plant such as soon as possible. Cereal rye seed germinates with soil and air temperatures in the 33º – 41º F range.

These workers stress that due to its root system (which can grow down at least three feet), cereal rye is drought-tolerant and requires 20% to 30% less water than does wheat. It is hardy with more frost tolerance than wheat. Also, rye doesn’t need as much fertilizer as corn.

Caution: When grazing cereal rye forage, ruminants tend to need more supplemental magnesium, since grain forages tend to run low on that element. To counter a possible bovine metabolic train wreck, most livestock nutritionists prefer the costlier Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) over magnesium oxide. The liberated, negatively charged sulfate anion helps maintain optimum cation-to-anion balance in the rumen, thus minimizing the chances for milk fever and grass staggers.

Speaking of mouth-harvested forage, the main reason that graziers start pasturing their animals prematurely is that they’re running low on feed. They believe that any way they can avoid purchasing someone else’s hay to make it through winter (or a slow spring) is good business. However, if we can accept that shocking pastures when they’re too immature for hoof traffic is a bad idea, then buying someone else’s hay turns out to be the much lesser of two evils.

I back up this statement with a quote from Kentucky-based grazing guru Greg Brann: “A bale fed in early spring … and waiting till the grass is ready … will be worth four bales of summer grass production later, not to mention the fertility transfer back to the soil.”

That fertility came from nutrients produced on someone else’s farm. Four-for-one is a 300% return on investment – a lot better than most current stock market portfolios – even if you have to first buy those bales from another crop person.

Brann earned a bachelor’s degree in plant and soil science from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville with special emphasis on cattle husbandry. In addition to overseeing his own farming operation, he runs a livestock management consulting service, frequently lecturing at livestock conferences.