Crop Comments: Naughty Niña

On Dec. 15, 2017 a U.S. government weather forecaster said that La Niña conditions were predicted to continue in the Northern Hemisphere throughout Winter 2017-2018. During early autumn, the Climate Prediction Center (CPC), an agency of the National Weather Service… in its monthly bulletin… stated: “The chance of La Niña developing (is) about 80 percent, with a transition to ‘ENSO-neutral’ during the mid-late spring (2018)”. The agency… in its November advisory… had projected a 65-75 percent chance of the phenomenon taking place during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter. La Niña had emerged in 2016 for the first time since 2012.
This phenomenon, characterized by unusually cold sea temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, is linked with floods and droughts. And those weather anomalies can occur thousands of miles to the east (and northeast) of their tropical birthplace. According to CPC spokespersons, last November, “Based on the latest observation and forecast guidance, forecasters favor the peak of a weak to moderate La Niña during the winter.” And as winter 2017-2018 began to take shape, so did CPC’s forecast. Speaking of shape, another symptom of La Niña’s misbehavior is the ability of the “little girl” to bend… toward the south… the shape of the northern branch of the Northern Hemisphere’s jet stream. This occurrence allows cold Canadian/Arctic air to plunge into the northern tier of American states. So some of us think that our winter ended up with four Januaries.
Associated… at least indirectly with this misbehaving “little girl”… was a chain of meteorological unpleasantries. Between the end of February and early March 2018, a series of four massive storm systems (called nor’easters) flailed the Eastern Seaboard with powerfully strong winds, heavy snow, and tremendous coastal flooding to communities… from the Mid-Atlantic to northern Maine. While these storms are not out of the ordinary — they happen almost every winter — their strength and close timing certainly was newsworthy.
This prolonged winter has had some interesting local effects. Not far from me are Lakes Canadarago and Otsego… considered by many to be an extension of the Finger Lakes. Otsego Lake is roughly 10 miles long and about two miles wide, and boasts about 10 times the water volume of Canadarago Lake. Due to its smaller water mass, Canadarago Lake freezes first. Higher surface to mass ratio means the smaller lake normally sheds its ice cover first. However, as of April 23, Otsego Lake was only about 10 percent ice-covered, while Canadarago Lake was about three-quarters covered with ice.
Despite lots of snow cover… up till very recently…with extensive moisture in the topsoil, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation has imposed an outdoor burn ban, which remains in effect until May 15. Even though the soils may be soggy, the dormant and dead vegetation above them is typically tinder-dry, serving as nourishment for some uninvited spark. DEC’s worries became reality on a hillside flanking New York Route 80 between Hartwick and Edmeston. At least 10 acres lay charred black. Fortunately none of the flames appear to have made it to nearby wood lots. Now that most of the snow is gone from the Northeast’s tillable soils, there should still be ample moisture to get small grains and grass seedings off to a good start. Those crops are satisfied when the soil temperature climbs all the way up to 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Judging from the 10-day weather forecast, it looks like most days will be in the upper 30’s at night, and the mid-50’s by day. Next Tuesday and Wednesday (about a week from when I’m writing), daytime temperatures should inch into the 60’s. So my gut feeling is that soils shouldn’t be warm enough (50°F) to plant corn until mid-May. People planting corn before that thermal milestone is achieved will have to be generous with seed treatment. Organic corn growers will just have to wait till soil temperature hits (and preferably passes) the 50-degree mark. For corn growers I like to make the following recommendation: when the soil temperature reaches 50°F, plant between 10 and 20 percent of your intended corn acreage. When that corn emerges and forms distinct bright green rows of corn seedlings, then plant the rest of your corn acreage. If the corn seedlings are more yellow than green, the soil is probably too wet and/or too cold.
One early spring, working with a man who did his fieldwork with horses, I made the 10-20 percent early planting method recommendation. He called me out in mid-May to look at his cornfield, because he thought he was having a crop failure. He’d planted 10 of his 30 intended corn acres during the first couple days of May. The stand appeared to evidence about 5 percent germination. He and I got down on our knees to dig under the press wheel marks. We found pericarps (hulls) of kernels… but no germ nor endosperm. But I did find tiny creatures about half inch long and the width of a hair… quite wiggly. I’m pretty sure they were nematodes… enjoying the moisture-softened innards of corn kernels. All 10 acres had to be replanted. And I asked him if I’d given him the 10-20 percent / toe-in-the-water recommendation. He said I had, but that he’d ignored me. (Soybean and sorghum demand a 60°F soil temperature starting point.)
Prolonged cold spring weather is great for farmers with hay for sale. Mid-winter, many farmers I talked to were pretty sure that they’d have enough hay to make it through to grass. Lots of hay trucks are running up and down the highways in mid-April. On Groundhog Day, lots of folks figured their hay would last till the first of April… when there should be grazeable forage. Maybe that’s how that particular day got its nickname.

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