Farmers and the weather are inextricably linked. Without favorable weather, it does not matter if we make all the right choice: we can choose the right seed, crop protection packages, and have all the right timing but without the cooperation of mother nature our crops can still fail. I have previously written about the impacts of extreme drought on both our mental well being and the success of our farms (linked here). I have not discussed however, the true impacts of the weather and how it impacts our operation. Rarely, if ever, will we see a perfect growing season but certain events are more damaging than others. Drought, excess rain, hail, wind, cold, and heat can have a devastating impact on our yields and conversely the success of our operation.
An Inextricable Link
We depend on the weather to provide to proper number of growing degree days (explanation of GDD linked here) for each crop, the proper amount of moisture, as well as enough frost free days to ensure the crop can make it from sprout to maturity. There are few, if any, farmers who count on the weather providing us a perfect growing season, and the demands of each crop make this a particularly difficult task, but we are hopeful that each year will provide enough help from the weather to ensure a successful crop.
The weather is also known for throwing curve balls throughout the year that can easily turn an otherwise successful weather year into a disaster in the matter of minutes. For example a hail storm that rips through the fields, destroying any crop in its path, or a sudden and unexpected freeze late in the growing season. These events happen in a matter of moments, can often catch us by surprise, and leave devastation in their wake. These events certainly underscore the need for crop insurance however we rarely articulate the devastating impacts of these events.
The inextricable link between farmers and weather is also difficult to articulate. Seemingly harmless delays can have devastating impacts later in the year, short duration heatwaves can have lasting impacts, while one single frost can kill a crop in a matter of moments. The nuances and varying degrees of weather related disasters is difficult to put into words and well as the proper context.
Are we ever happy?
The short answer is, yes, we are occasionally happy with the weather. In fact once in a blue moon the weather will provide a perfect growing season, the crops will face minimal stresses, and we will have a record year. These years are few and far between. What happens more often is the weather will provide ups and downs throughout the growing season. All of our crops will be stressed at some point in time, usually be a short heatwave or a shortage of water, but we can usually hold out hope for a timely “million dollar” rain. The type of rains that can save a crop in an instant or give us just enough moisture to survive until the next rain.
Farmers typically are not asking for a perfect year, we know they are rare and unlikely to happen, but we are hoping the weather will give us just enough to get the crop to harvest, to allow us to make all the proper management decisions, and let us get everything in the bin. As we move towards increased crop diversity our needs from the weather diversify, now a rain during harvest can save our late season crops even if it slows down our harvest. Rain late in June can also provide the spring wheat, barley, and hay barley the boost it needs to make it to harvest while delaying the progress of haying season. An inconvenience in the short term can have substantial long term gains.
When things go wrong . . .
The weather is known for throwing curve balls, that are often devastating. One browse through #agtwitter last week revealed devastating hail and flash flooding across parts of the Prairie Provinces in Canada as well as the Midwest. These events often bring much needed rain but the side effects can cause irreparable damage to the crops. Hail has the potential to devastate crops depending on the stage in which the hail storm strikes. Early season hail storms are far easier to recover from than storms that strike in June, July and August.
Last week, despite the warm weather in recent weeks, we dropped to 32 degrees overnight. The drop in temperature would have almost certainly killed sunflowers and/or corn if we had any planted. We already were unable to plant sunflowers or corn this year due to wet conditions. It remains to be seen if our early developing wheat was damaged by the cold temperatures (we believe it will escape damage). On average the last time we see 32 degrees is May 24, long before any of our crops are at risk of frost damage. The earliest frost we have ever seen in the fall is August 24, this happened a few years ago, and caused us to lose most of our corn. Ironically it happened in 2012, the driest year on record – so what was not lost to drought was lost to frost damage. We also saw sudden, unexpected August frosts in 2014 and 2015. The risk of frost also impacts our planting decisions in the spring, when we are delayed by wet and cold weather, frost is a top consideration. If we are no longer certain we can seed a crop and it will reach maturity before a damaging frost then we abandon our seeding plans.
Thunderstorms can also bring “dry” lightening, meaning a lightening storm without rain, that can spark devastating fires. Fires tore through much of Montana last year with many of them being sparked by lightening. We also saw a number of fires sparked by lightening in our area during the drought of 2012. These dry lightening storms are usually accompanied by wind that causes fires to advance even faster.
Farmer v. Farmer v. Weather
The impact of weather conditions vary widely depending on geography and farming operation. Farmers often do not mind snowy winters, as we are rarely trying to get in the field anyway. Ranchers on the other hand struggle through long hard winters, outside in the elements, doing everything they can to ensure their livestock are protected. They struggle to keep young cattle and sheep alive, the window for error is shortened to a matter of minutes in the freezing weather and deep snow. Farmers in Montana love “La Nina” conditions as they typically lean toward wetter conditions while the Midwest prefers “El Nino” conditions.
Sugar beet farmers in Montana, some just a short 30 miles away from me, are not fans of wet falls as they struggle to harvest their beets. Wet falls can also have devastating impacts on the quality of their crops, meanwhile farmers such as myself love wet falls. We get optimal growing conditions for our winter wheat as well as great weed emergence which allows us a chance to control them before the spring season.
A wet late June and early July makes it very difficult for us to put up our forage crops without lowering the quality from repeated rains, if you are a farmer with wheat and barley, these rains can mean the difference between a 40 bushel crop and a 50 bushel crop. Heavy rains in August are often celebrated by farmers with sunflowers and corn still growing in the season, but the impacts of August rains on mature wheat and barley can have devastating impacts on quality.
Our inextricable link to weather and dependence on her whims makes it a complex relationship. This complex relationship can lend itself to numerous complaints as well as seemingly contradictory complaints. I did not even discuss all of the impacts of weather, most significantly I left out the devastation that can be left in the wake of flooding (both flash and general flooding). I do hope however I was able to articulate the complex relationship we have with the weather and some of the overriding reasons for what seems like constant complaining. Weather will give us some of the best crop years of our lives but she will also be responsible for some of the worst. Both are years that will be talked about in the tales of farming for years to come. I am still hoping that 2018 will be one for the record books, but there are a lot of days left in the growing year, so we will see.