Watch for La Nina this year, ISU climatologist tells farmers

Farmers anticipating a reprieve in the weather for the upcoming season might have to wait awhile, according to Elwynn Taylor, ISU Extension climatologist, who spoke to growers Tuesday on Day 1 of the 2014 Hawkeye Farm Show last week at the University of Northern Iowa.

Taylor isn’t a weather forecaster in the 10 o’clock news sense; he looks at weather patterns that stretch decades, even centuries.

Farmers respect his thoughts, as evidenced by the audience that packed a conference room at the UNI-Dome to hear him offer his insights on the upcoming growing season and the corn and soybean markets it might produce.

Conditions appeared to be setting up for a La Nina growing season, which Taylor said is not the “friend to the farmers” that its opposite, El Nino, is.

La Nina occurs when the sea-surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean fall to cooler than normal levels

“I am seeing these things turning increasingly blue (cold), and the area that tells us that would give us an extreme summer,” Taylor said, pointing to side-by-side images representing the water temperatures off the South American east coast in January and March.

“I am seeing more blue yesterday than I saw in January,” he said. “That is not a good sign. It indicates that we’re moving toward La Nina.”

La Nina generally translates into below-trend yields, the trends being U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts under “normal” conditions.

“We’re kind of moving toward a La Nina now, and that would say the 166 bushels per acre everybody was talking about (as a normal yield) looks like it’s going to diminish under 160, or under the trend line, or where it’s been for the past four years,” Taylor said.

He quickly pointed out that USDA forecasts have hit their mark four times since the 1960s.

What does it mean for farmers? If growers have to deal with a La Nina season, Taylor said there’s likely a 70 percent chance of below-trend yield, “then our most likely yield will be 149 bushels.”

Taylor pointed out that it doesn’t have to mean good or bad years for farmers, as long as they manage their risks.

“The guys (futures traders) in Chicago make their money by the volatility from day to day, the price changes and so forth, and you do the same thing,” he told the estimated 100 farm show attendees who packed the Alumni Room. “Only it’s the year-to-year changes. Is it above or below trend in yield? So that’s the thing we pay attention to.”

Taylor also talked about the fallout from a current winter season that has seen 10 “polar outbreaks” of zero and below temperatures.

“In a normal winter, we’ll have two or three of these polar outbreaks,” he said. “If it’s a harsh winter, we’ll have six.”

Of course, the 50-plus inches of snow that belted the area has been a concern, but Taylor said there’s a blessing in terms of the insulation the snow cover provides in allowing the topsoil to thaw.

“Every place in Iowa is above freezing at (a depth of) 4 feet. The warmth is working its way up with the snow cover we have,” he said.