Crop Comments: Five second flash to bang

Monday afternoon I took 13 soil samples. Immediately upon returning home, I spread out each of the samples on newspapers on card tables on our front porch. Early this afternoon, all samples appeared to have dried sufficiently overnight to screen successfully. After screening, the separated soil was returned to the sandwich bag in which it left its field. The sealed baggie was placed in a small cardboard box to be sent with other samples to the soil lab in Ithaca.

At about 1:30 p.m., the sky got quite dark. The wind picked up and rain started falling…first softly, then hard. I’d heard thunder, but hadn’t seen any lightning. Then a flash of lightning arced across the sky. Five seconds later came the thunder. With 1,000 feet per second speed of sound through air, that meant the lightning sparked about one mile away. So from today’s April 9 date I counted off 183 days (six months). That math predicts when the first fall frost should occur in our area a half-year down the road.

Here’s the science supporting my annual springtime prediction. The climatological factor entering play here is called the jet stream polar drift rule. That rule states that the first serious electrical storm of spring, in latitudes near the 45th parallel (which is halfway between the equator and the North Pole…and runs near Canton, NY) will be followed, a half-year later, by autumn’s first killer frost. So counting 183 days forward from that April 9 thunderstorm, I can safely make an Oct. 9 first fall frost forecast.

On this early April date, the jet stream spurred north to cause a decent thunderstorm: a moisture-laden southern warm air mass surged northward to slam into a drier cold air mass – causing mega-condensation and equally great electrical activity. [Today (in Hartwick) the air temperature dropped from about 65 degrees Fahrenheit (F) to 50F in about two hours.] So half a year later the jet stream is supposed to do the opposite, forming a trough that will go far enough south to allow arctic air to descend on the Reidheads’ summer squash…as well as millions of acres of corn, soybean and sorghum.

That’s exactly what the jet stream does at the six-month mark – unless El Niño misbehaves. At the present time El Niño activity promises to be minimal…and stay that way. Historically, over the previous 28 years that I’d been making first fall frost forecasts, when El Niño (Spanish for Little Boy) gets ornery, I excuse myself from making my forecast. The unruly Little Boy throws a wrench in the works. To determine whether that Little Boy is misbehaving, I check out a National Weather Service website at www.elnino.noaa.gov/forecast.html .

That site says that El Niño is a southern Pacific Ocean phenomenon, which frequently impacts our part of the planet. Each early March, I research what the Little Boy might have up his sleeve. An El Niño is said to take place when the Pacific Sea Surface Temperature (SST) rises by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (C) above normal (for that time of year). Quoting the above link (late March 2019), “Weak El Niño conditions are likely to continue through the Northern Hemisphere spring 2019 (approx. 80% chance) and summer (approx. 60% chance). The current event bears some similarities to the 2015 spring El Niño that went on to become a strong event by winter. However, it’s too soon to tell whether this event will follow the same path.” So I feel at ease making my first fall killer frost forecast.

El Niño has a climatological sister called La Niña (Spanish for Little Girl). Her numbers are just the opposite of her brother’s: namely, when the Pacific SST drops 1.5 degrees Celsius deviation below normal for the same running three-month period. And the low threshhold of La Niña activity is 0.5 degrees Celsius below normal. Presently, the Pacific Ocean’s surface temperatures have slowly worked out of a gentle La Niña and into a gentle El Niño. Again, this makes me feel comfortable with my Oct. 9 forecast.

I believe that 2019 will enjoy six months of frost-free crop growing, as was the case last year. But hopefully the other crop performance factors will behave in a more “ruly” fashion than they did in 2018. Last year the timing of Mother Nature’s three main crop production factors (warmth, moisture and solar radiation) was undisciplined. During the 183 days linking first spring thunderstorm and first fall frost, the total amount of solar radiation, precipitation and warmth (both air and soil) could be described as relatively normal. The big issue was a matter of timing: May and the first half of June received at least 10 weeks’ worth of precipitation…counterbalanced by very dry first three weeks of July (great hay-making weather).

In the Northeast region, often days that somehow had sufficient warmth also had enough cloud cover so that solar radiation was inadequate. Annual crops like corn, soybean and even sorghum (according to many forage analysis summaries) got barely passing grades. Crop quality was much more a problem than crop quantity. (Many Northeast dairy farmers are still grappling with 2018’s poor forage quality, peppered all too often with mycotoxins.)

The fourth factor impacting crop performance – not counting tangible inputs like lime and fertilizer – was soil health…an item over which growers have a fair amount of control. The biggest factor impacting soil health is its organic matter. It’s perhaps an oversimplification, but the more time a field spends supporting perennial crops, the more organic matter (OM) builds up. With increased OM, soil biological activity increases, and the longer pastures keep yielding. With the close of the 2018 growing season (and its successful frost prediction), my first fall frost forecast score card tally stands at 19 hits, 4 misses, and 5 self-excusals (the latter due to cantankerous “Little Boys”). Omitting excusals, my success rate stands at 82.6%…better than some of my chem grades at Cornell.

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