Minutes before midnight on March 31, my peaceful sleep was interrupted by loud, rolling thunder. The next clap of thunder was preceded by lightning, with a flash-to-bang time (FTB) of two to three seconds. With speed of sound at approximately 1,000 feet/second, this meant that the lightning from one cloud hit something about a half-mile away from us (which might have been another cloud). The storm continued for about an hour, with each succeeding FTB a little longer than the previous one.
With that storm, our part of Central New York got about two inches of rain. What caused this electrical storm was the southern branch of the northern jet stream surging northward. In this event, a moisture-laden warm air mass slammed into a drier cold air mass. This merger caused huge amounts of condensation, and simultaneously great electrical activity, accompanied by 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.
Scientifically, here’s the basis behind 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 electrical storm of springtime (in latitudes near the 45th parallel) will be followed half-year later by autumn’s first killer frost. The 45th parallel passes through Canton, NY.
That’s how the jet stream phenomenon is supposed to play out, unless El Niño (Spanish for Little Boy) or La Niña (Little Girl) “misbehave.” El Niño takes 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 occurs when PSST drops by more than 1.5º C below normal for that time of year.
On March 9, La Niña began smoothly transitioning out of El Niño, helping me determine that she was not misbehaving – a development which increased my comfort level in predicting FFFF for the last day of September.
How did my forecast pan out? Although residents of downtown Hartwick (where I live) didn’t experience a killer frost at dawn on Sept. 28, there were folks in not-too-distant Sherburne who did report frost on their vehicles’ windshields. Farmers in that area observed frosted corn tassels, which weren’t enough to hurt standing corn. Sept. 28 marked day #181 since the first serious thunderstorm. The half-year mark would have been at day #182.5 – not bad.
However one slices it, the frost last week was not very far-reaching and feeble at best. Does the mild weather, very common right after that cold spell just mentioned, amount to Indian summer? To most folks, an Indian summer is typically a period of abnormally warm weather following autumn’s first freeze. While the exact origins of the phrase are not known, many historians speculate that it may refer to hazy autumn conditions that allowed Native Americans to continue hunting, especially in October and November.
Whatever the moniker of this mild October weather, the associated mass of growing degree days is being put to good use by crop people. Lots of hay stands are producing enough forage to make an acceptable fourth cutting. Pastures keep yielding, taking pressure off stored hay reserves that may be smaller than hoped for, due to meager rainfall four months ago. Longer season corn keeps putting extra warmth to good use, promising increased harvestable digestible dry matter per acre.
Some folks are still planting winter forages – rye, triticale, wheat, barley or speltz. This time of year, I get questions related to forage quantity and quality.
For example, last Saturday, Hank from Lewis County called, asking me to compare milk production support from corn silage and sorghum/sudangrass (SS) hybrid silage. He is gearing up to ship organic milk next summer. I asked him if the SS was brown mid-rib (BMR), and he said that it was. I told him that feed trial research overseen by Cornell has shown that on a pounds of dry matter intake basis, the two forages support milk production equally well in most situations. A BMR SS forage program allows the dairy person to cut back on soymeal by a pound – compared to corn silage, but will force them to feed another pound of corn meal – per head per day. Hank thought swapping a pound of soy for a pound of corn was a pretty good deal.
I asked him if his prospective organic milk handler permits grain feeding. He answered yes to that, then asked if it would be a good idea to alternate corn silage and SS loads being blown into his silo. I told him that there shouldn’t be any problem, as the two feeds are still very similar, plus there’s a lot of blending when one kind of feed lands on top of another in a small silo.
I told him that crop rotation-wise, preceding corn with SS works well. This is because the prussic acid exuded from SS roots proves fatal to any corn rootworms trying to set up shop the following growing season. Prussic acid (also known as hydrogen cyanide) can be strong enough in immature SS (less than two feet tall) to be harmful to grazing ruminants. What I forgot to mention to Hank was to make sure that when cattle hit spring pasture – and very possibly run out of silages – that they keep eating some dry hay, preferably at least a half-pound per body hundredweight.
With my successful FFFF call, based on last week’s feeble frost, my score card stands at 25-6. Since the early 1990s, when I started conducting these tallies, there were a few instances where I recused myself from forecasts, due to naughty Niños and Niñas. That math gives me a score of 80.6% – still better than some of my grades at Cornell.