I’m hoping that growing season 2024 behaves much more normally than its predecessor did. Last year boasted some of the planet’s highest average temperatures ever recorded. At the same time, I’m hard-pressed to forget 2012.

Crop Comments: Ninety-day forecast nudges growers toward sorghumWhile not as hot as 2023, the lack of rainfall was epic 12 years ago. Most upstate New Yorkers referred to that year as “Drought 2012.” The severe moisture shortage impacted 40 of the lower 48 states.

That summer, I visited Certified Crop Advisor Tom Kilcer, who oversaw crop demonstration operations at the Cornell Research Farm in Valatie, NY. He gave me a tour of the field crop experimental plots there one afternoon during the last week of that growing season.

The visit took place at the peak of the drought which had already lasted six weeks by that time. During that dry spell, total precipitation at that site ran about one-half inch. There were at least two main points that Kilcer wanted me to understand. First was just how vulnerable to drought soils are which suffer from depleted organic matter; second, how much better hot climate summer annuals (HCSAs) tolerate those stresses than do corn and soybeans.

HCSAs include such crops as sorghum, sudangrass, their hybrids and millets. All the HCSA crops possess the C-4 trait, which means their structures are constructed with four-carbon modules. All HCSAs possess fibrous root systems.

The C-4 trait means the plant is physiologically well adapted to retaining water in its “body” (i.e., not losing it as water vapor). The fibrous root system means the plant is adept at storing water in the ground. Corn is a C-4 crop but lacks a fibrous root system. Soybeans lack both of those traits, but soybeans are able to go partially dormant, waiting for rain to come. But soybeans were also more tolerant of 2023’s wildfire smoke, benefiting more from smoke’s excess carbon dioxide.

The HCSAs all tolerate extra warmth; they all were developed in hotter, drier regions, like sub-Saharan Africa. Corn got its start in rather damp Central America, while soybeans originated in also rather damp China. Soybeans first came to the U.S. as ballast in the hold of a sailing vessel departing that country when Thomas Jefferson was president.

If we examine the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maps for the upcoming 90 days (May, June and July 2024) at tinyurl.com/47c9cxv4, the following is what we’ll learn:

Using the map addressing the projected temperature deviations – from normal, we can calculate that the states bordering the Great Lakes (if we add Iowa) account for almost half of all the milk produced in the U.S., based on monthly USDA National Ag Stats for milk production. Interestingly, in 2023 two of those states (Ohio and Pennsylvania) experienced the greatest amount of solar radiation disruption due to Canadian wildfire smoke. That loss of sunlight delayed corn harvests by about three weeks.

Even though the Great Lakes Region enjoyed plenty of warmth, it lacked solar radiation due to lost sunlight, deflected by smoke. These are two of the necessary four crop production factors. (The other two are moisture and soil fertility.)

The threat of another dose of 2023-style Canadian wildfire wreaking similar havoc on U.S. farmers in 2024 is a cause for great concern. A similar NOAA map showing the Great Lakes region forecasting normal amounts of rainfall during the same three months (May – July) may be quite worrisome, combined with warmer than normal temperatures during that period.

In studying similar information from Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC, their version of NOAA), I learned that on March 31 their entire country, for the period March – May 2024, is forecast to experience warmer than normal temperatures, with the Maritime Provinces more certain to do so than the rest of our northern neighbor. The forecast put forth by ECCC certainly supports fears that 2024’s wildfire season might repeat 2023’s. ECCC only issues these reports quarterly; the next one is due in June.

About a dozen years ago, during Drought 2012, a deep-thinking career Corn Belt agronomist told me “corn/soy is a non-rotation.” He told me that because in the minds of many growers, the word “rotation” implied soil health. Simply alternating soybean and corn – with their non-fibrous root systems – merely sickens soils. Thus, the phrase “corn/soy rotation” is as relevant as the term “Swiss admiral.” That scientist stressed that corn monoculture – even for two or more years – alternating with soybeans does not build soils.

So, during my July visit to Valatie 12 years ago, Kilcer showed me badly cracked soils which had tested 2.9% organic matter (OM). The corn plants on that parched, low OM had dehydrated to death, but the HCSAs on that same soil were thriving – not a wrinkle amongst them.

Meanwhile, scientists predict that warmer oceans will make future storms like hurricanes and tropical cyclones more intense, as well as make droughts drier. That last factor is the one that spawned 2023’s Canadian wildfires.

Folks performing tillage can do their share of keeping carbon in soils and plant and animal life forms – thus out of the atmosphere. They can plant crops that form sods, or at least have fibrous root systems. As shown earlier, corn and soybean can make neither claim.

Growers should test soils to know (not guess) what OM levels are. OM is about 58% carbon. Soil scientists presume that a six-inch topsoil layer on an acre weighs 1,000 tons. Thus, destroying 1% of OM kicks loose 11,600 lbs. of carbon into the atmosphere.

This problem, a type of double-edged sword, has a second major weakness: each 1% OM loss reduces an acre’s water-holding capacity by about 20,000 gallons according to land grant research. Lost water-holding capacity makes droughts drier. If cattle need high energy forage – and soil OM is less than 4% – plant summer annuals, like sorghum, sudangrass, their hybrids or millets. These boast fibrous root systems.