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A tough winter: Climatologist speaks at Farmer Spring Break Conference

WORTHINGTON — If anyone needed confirmation that the winter of 2013-2014 would go down in history as one of the worst winters in a long time, Iowa State University Extension Climatologist Elwynn Taylor provided it.

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Taylor, a keynote speaker at the Farmer Spring Break Conference Friday at Minnesota West Community and Technical College’s Worthington campus, said polar outbreaks have brought frigid temperatures to the region more times than normal. Normal would be about six times per season, and the northerly winds that blew in Thursday night and Friday marked the 10th such occurrence this winter, he said, adding, “This would be considered a harsh period.”

With charts showing wind direction and images of the polar vortex’s five lobes stretching out from the North Pole, Taylor said the winter of 2013-2014 left the Upper Midwest in a deep freeze, while Alaska and the Arctic Circle recorded temperatures generally above freezing.

“Why do I care about the harsh winters?” Taylor asked. “We care because if we have volatility in the winter, we tend to have volatility in the summer.”

In essence, he said we could go from the coldest, wettest winter to the hottest, driest summer.

The news isn’t ideal for farmers looking ahead to spring planting in hopes of producing record-breaking crop yields.

In his presentation to several dozen attendees, Taylor used a combination of historical data and water temperature recordings in the oceans to tell farmers what they may have in store, weatherwise, for 2014.

“The oceans control our weather — they have so much heat capacity,” Taylor said, adding that a 10-degree increase in water temperature has as much impact on climate as a 10-degree increase in air temperature.

In the U.S., weather patterns are divided along the Interstate 35 corridor, Taylor said. Weather east of I-35 is impacted by the climate in Bermuda, while the weather west of I-35 follows the trend of Hawaii’s climate.

At this time, three forecasters are calling for a La Niña year — a year of weather extremes from very cold to very warm — while another three forecasters predict an El Niño year with more moderate temperatures.

As for Taylor, he said he won’t pay any attention to the predictions until April 15. By then, he said there should be a “pretty good” indication of what’s in store for May, June and July.

Still, he was willing to say Friday that he sees a tendency toward a La Niña weather pattern this summer.

A La Niña weather pattern, as it correlates to crop production, means producers have a 70 percent chance of garnering below-trend (160 bushels per acre for corn) yields. In an El Niño year, there’s a 70 percent chance of having above-trend yields, Taylor said.

“We have every reason to think we’ll be dominated by La Niña,” he said.

The volatility of an extreme weather pattern in a La Niña year will also likely mean volatility in markets. That, Taylor said, is a good thing.

“Can you make money off of volatility?” he asked. “That is the only way you can make a profit in farming.

“The greater the volatility, the greater the profitability because we have the right tools,” he added. “We know the growing degree days, we know the stress (on the crop), we know the precipitation.”

Taylor said since 1972, crop producers in the Midwest have not made a lot of money selling their grain.

“It’s the only industry I know where people are happy to sell that they grow for the cost of growing it,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to make a profit sometimes?”

Taylor encouraged producers to market their grain by managing their risk — follow the weather forecasts and determine how much to sell and when. Using risk management in crop marketing, he said, puts him in the top 4 percent of everyone who buys or sells grain.

“If you’re going to have profit in agriculture, you’ve got to know what is going on,” Taylor told the audience. “You have to know how to manage that risk. Risk has numbers. If you don’t have numbers, you’re talking about uncertainty. I cannot manage uncertainty, I can only avoid it.”

History, when it comes to weather, has been a reliable indicator of what’s to come.

“When will the harshest year of this century be?” Taylor asked. “History says they’re 89 years apart since the year 1200, at least.”

In the span of the last 200 years, Taylor said 1847 was the driest year on record, 1936 followed suit and predictions show 2025 will be the harshest year of the 21st century.

“You young people write it down,” he told the college students in attendance, then with a smirk added, “You old guys really shouldn’t be caring.”

Wet years and dry years follow the same 89-year cycle, Taylor said, adding “it’s a very real thing.”

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
(507) 376-7330
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