High rainfall has effect on local agriculture

weather expert  (2)

By Daniel Lapham,

After two consecutive years of above average rainfall in June and July and drier than normal conditions in the fall and spring, a regional climate specialist and a Canadian County farmer agree that adaptation and hard work are the keys to continued success in Oklahoma agriculture.

“With the rains that started in late May and continued through June and then July, we are seeing definite improvements to the drought in Oklahoma. The break in the drought has made a big difference,” said Dr. Jeanne Schneider. Schneider is lead meteorologist for the Southern Plains Regional Climate Hub and Great Plains Agroclimate and Natural Resources Research Unit. “I have noticed that the cattlemen and women that sold their cattle during the drought last fall and winter have acquired new stock.”

And if the rains continue, a local farmer believes it is possible for a second hay crop and a really good wheat crop to be harvested. Cody Stine, 23, is a fifth generation farmer with Stine Farms. He said the rains are having a great impact.

“The grass has been great, just like last year,” Stine said. “The wheat stubble has been growing like crazy. At this point we are just trying to stay on top of it. Usually in July we wouldn’t have any grass. It would be all burnt up, but because of the rains it’s still lush and green. We are usually already using our hay to feed to the cows by now.”

Schneider said according to the website drought.gov, conditions have drastically improved, but the dry spell is far from over.

“We have roughly the southeast quarter of the state out of drought, but in southwest Oklahoma and all the way up to northwest Oklahoma and the panhandle we are still seeing extreme to heavy drought,” Schneider said. “The rest of Oklahoma and most of Canadian County is still in what we call a moderate drought. The scale ranges from D0 being no drought to D4 being extreme. Canadian County is currently ranked at a D1.”

To clarify how droughts are measured, Schneider said they are placed into three categories. A meteorological drought is defined as an area that has received less than average moisture over a long-term period. Agricultural drought deals with vegetation and topsoil indicating that moisture levels are too dry to effectively grow most crops. The third kind of drought is the most damaging and severe. This is a hydrologic drought. This occurs when the water supply is affected by a long-term drought and there becomes a decrease in water levels not only in lakes and rivers but also in wells and aquifers.

“The drought.gov data combines all three of these drought types to give us a big picture,” Schneider said. “Basically we are holding our own in the agricultural area, but we are still in a little bit of trouble with our hydrologic area. For Canadian County we are doing OK, but in southwest and northwest Oklahoma we are still in a serious drought. It’s actually scientifically much worse than the Dust Bowl, but we have gotten better with our farming practices so it hasn’t appeared as damaging. This is why last spring the dust storms were back in the panhandle.”

Despite the long-term dry outlook, Stine said his family couldn’t be happier with current conditions and hopes it lasts through the fall and winter.

“Usually you’d have to cut your grass by the Fourth of July,” Stine said. “A lot of people this year are getting hay crops off the crabgrass that has grown up in their wheat stubble. From my standpoint, it is a really good year. If we keep getting these rains there will be a second harvest for sure.”

Whether the rains will continue or we are destined for another dry fall and spring is still uncertain, according to Schneider, but one thing is certain, she said, and that is the increase in the unpredictability and severity of weather patterns.

“I am both a research meteorologist and the lead for the Southern Plains Regional Climate Hub. It is my job to coordinate the research on all of the research dealing with climate change across this region. As a part of this I see all of the data coming from every direction. Climate change is something that has already happened. It’s not something that you can look at one event and say this is it. It is when you put it all together that you see the bigger picture. The data shows us that the changes have been happening since at least 2000. We did not use to see the things we are seeing. For example, we are getting cold fronts in July. Before 2000 you did not see that. This feels good. It’s nice out and we are getting the moisture, but what we are seeing is an increase in extremes.”

Cool weather in July is not a bad thing, but droughts are. What is really happening is a breakdown in the wisdom of the past where there has always been a spring and a fall rain. This is not true anymore.

“I am only 23 so I am young, but I don’t remember it being like this,” Stine said. “I remember it being muddy during planting season. But not like it’s been the last couple of years. It’s been the worst I’ve seen it. In the past you might have had your hail damage or storms, but not like this.”

The changes have been developing slowly but now they are reaching a crescendo, Schneider said. There are no longer regular rain patterns.

“The big change and problem with this is that with these changes we are seeing more flooding events and droughts,” she said. “What we are seeing as indicators for the future is drought punctuated by flood. The variability has increased. Everything indicates that variability is going to continue to increase. So we need to adapt. Not wait to go back to what it used to be. I do believe we have the ability to adapt. I am concerned about this because when I talk to our producers, our farmers and ranchers, they say, ‘We just need to wait for it to go back to normal.’ Well, there is no normal anymore.”

Stine said although he sees the change, he and his family are still seeing results through traditional farming and although it is traditional, there are ways to adapt within tried and true farming.

“We are kinda old-fashioned with our farming,” Stine said. “It’s really hard to go out and turn it around to a no-till farming method. There are a lot of chemicals and equipment that you have to use and that’s not something we are really excited about getting into. It’s kinda hard to change and go a different way of farming. We have been doing this for five generations and it has worked. We can adapt and still do it our way.”

Schneider disagreed with the idea that things can stay the same.

“Everything we have thought we knew for centuries is wrong,” she said. “So if you leave the stubble and plant into that you actually get more water absorption and retention. Having all of that plant matter insulates the soil. It will help to insulate the soil against the extremes. The weather is more dynamic so bad things are happening more often. The more we can do to support that life the better off we are.”

Although no-till is not an option for Stine Farms, Stine said adapting is something farmers have always done.

“We will usually change our patterns and planting times to a different time of year and we will space out our crops differently. We just set it aside and don’t plant everything if it doesn’t sprout. Wheat likes it cool so we couldn’t change up the planting season, but you can fluctuate it within reason. The yields just fluctuate from year to year. It’s just how it is with farming.”

Stine said he has spoken with several farmers that are going to summer crops or canola in order to deal with the fluctuation.

“I have seen a lot of summer crops like hay grazer or millet or a grain crop like milo or beans,” he said.

Schneider said her role is not to tell anyone what they should do, but simply to look at the data and help coordinate every possible resources to provide producers with the best options to adapt and thrive for generations to come.

“I do believe we can adapt but it is not going to be easy,” she said. “We are still figuring it out. That is my job as the lead for the climate hub is to help figure out the best options and to answer the question, ‘How do we adapt?’ It’s all these little things adding up that constitutes climate change. The people that are making it are the ones who have already made changes to modern methods. Going from traditional till to no-till is a solution I have seen work. A healthy soil is a soil that is alive in terms of keeping a biological life inside of it. This is what you see in a prairie that has never been tilled and this is what you strive to achieve with no-till methods.”

Information and additional resources are available to the public through the Natural Resources Conservation Service website at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov. Once there one can select his state to find specific area resources.

“We are trying to figure this out in real time,” Schneider said. “Increasing soil health and developing a soil health plan is a good place to begin. It does take a couple of years to make some of these changes. It is going to take investments, but we are seeing results from those who have made changes. We are not here to tell anyone what to do but to give options. The bottom line is we can no longer treat agriculture as a factory, we must be more adaptable and be able to adjust. We can no longer work on a calendar. This is now a matter of taking advantage of the rains when they come and hunkering down when they don’t. It’s going to be hard for a lot of people. I appreciate that. I know it is going to be hard. But that is the beauty of humankind. We can change, we can adapt, and we must.”

Daniel Lapham is a reporter for the sister paper of the Mustang News, the El Reno Tribune. He can be reached at dlapham@elrenotribune.com.