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Elwynn Taylor’s outlook

By Staff | Dec 9, 2016

ISU Climatologist Elwynn Taylor explains the outlook for 2017, what kinds of factors may cause drought, and why the next 20 years may see much more volatile fluctuations in crop yields than the last 18. Taylor was a featured speaker on the final day of the annual Farm News Ag Show at the Iowa Central Community College East Campus.

While the forecasted crop yields look to be good for the 2017 growing season, farmers should be on their guard for volatility in the next two decades, Elwynn Taylor told a crowd at the Farm News Ag Show Thursday morning.

Taylor, Iowa State University’s climatologist and a regular speaker at the annual show, gave an outlook for 2017 and explained how weather patterns may affect crop yields to a room packed to capacity at Iowa Central Community College’s East Campus.

“The way things look now it looks just above trend,” Taylor said, when asked about his yield forecast. “This will be updated the end of January. The one I’ll be serious about will be by April 15.”

Although there have been El Nino conditions over the past few years, Taylor said it wasn’t clear conditions would swing the other way to a La Nina pattern.

“I don’t think the La Nina is going to come in strong,” he said. “We’ve had a strong El Nino in the past three years, and that is hard to get rid of.”

Sam Morris, 3, of Manson, had fun watching Curt Roberts make pancakes with his dad Dave Morris Thursday morning at the Farm News Ag show. Curt comes every year, and said Sam is eager to look at the tractors.

El Nino, which tends to bring cooler and wetter weather, is generally considered farm-friendly in the Midwest, while a La Nina tends to bring hotter and drier weather.

While this winter isn’t likely to be especially harsh, it will have some cold spells – like the one coming next week.

“One week from today we will be lucky if the temperature reaches freezing,” he said. “Will it end up being a harsh winter? No, a variable winter.”

One thing farmers should watch out for in the coming years is the drought in the southeast.

“All our major Midwest droughts have started in north Georgia, South Carolina,” Taylor said. “They are in drought right now.

Curt Roberts, of Chris Cakes, tosses a pancake high while serving breakfast at the Farm News Ag show on Dec. 1. Free pancakes brought a long line of people at 7:30 a.m. to the show.

“If that is still continuing in January then that drought will probably expand this summer into Ohio, and perhaps along the Gulf Coast,” he added. “Often in the first year it reaches Ohio, sometimes it reaches Texas. And in the second year it reaches here.”

Prevailing winds shift from the northwest in winter to come from the south around March 13.

“That is because of the Bermuda high pressure,” he said, “and the clockwise flow of air around that high pressure.”

In the big drought of 1988, the Bermuda high pressure system wasn’t over Bermuda on schedule, instead lingering over by Africa.

“Finally in July it got there, and from July on through the rest of the year we had a pretty normal season,” he said. “Of course the corn was dead by then.”

Watching the trends to predict yields will be especially important over the next 20 years, as the Corn Belt is now four years into a period of volatility.

“You see 18 years of consistent yields, and about 25 years of erratic yields,” he said.

This is not only backed up by tracking yields over the last 130 years or so. The pattern is backed up by growth rings found in old trees. In fact, scientists have evidence this pattern has been going on for more than 400 years, he said.

“The climate risk in agriculture is likely to be higher in the next 20 years, like it was in the ’80s,” he said. “Your risk management you’ve been practicing for the past 10 years? That has been practice.”

Although yields have gone up greatly from the old days, new hybrid seeds and new farming techniques can’t protect farmers from the weather, he said.

“The new hybrids we have today are not independent of the weather,” Taylor said. “The weather we had in the 1930s that cut yields in half, would still cut yields in half today. … For all our improvements we are still dependent on the weather.”

He told farmers that if they monitor the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s estimates, and then watch the accumulated growing degree units, precipitation and heat stress on their own crop and compare those to their historic yields, they can know early in the season if their yields will meet or exceed USDA’s estimates.

Then by comparing their individual yields with the average of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana (found on the Iowa Environmental Mesonet website), they can know if USDA’s estimates are too high or too low.

Farmers can also view data for free for pretty much any county throughout multiple states in the Corn Belt by visiting mygeohub.org/groups/u2u/acv.

Information is also found at mesonet.agron.iastate.edu/.

“When I first came here, farmers were always asking me to find the analog year, the year that’s like this one, assuming if we knew that, we’d know how this year is going to turn out,” Taylor said. “It worked, but it was hard to find.

“Now anyone can find the analog year with just a button.”

Farmers should look at yields, rainfall and maximum and minimum temperatures, which show heat stress on the crops. By comparing a good year, a bad year and an average year, and then adjusting which years are chosen on the online graphing service, the analog year can easily be found.

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