Coping with the Climate

For Wisconsin farmers dealing with wild swings in weather, adaptation is the key.

By Erik Ness

(Page 3 of 4)

Continuing research in crop rotations could improve productivity, decrease inputs and reduce carbon emissions. The research predates his tenure, and he hopes it will continue beyond. “There has to be a public investment into these kinds of projects,” says Lauer, noting that industry could not justify the investment. “Who knows what the questions are going to be?”

Farmers, he notes, have 30 or 40 seasons to get it right. And even simple differences in how each farmer responds to the challenges of the season produce a variability that strengthens the farm economy. “Farmers try a lot of different things,” Lauer says. “Next year if we can plant in March, there will be more people doing it.”

Indeed, Conley planted soybeans on March 29th. Twenty years ago most soybeans weren’t planted until the end of May or the first part of June. Now almost half of soybeans are in the ground by mid-May. That’s partly due to warming trends, but it also reflects better planting equipment, better genetics and new seed treatments.

But research sealed the deal, showing that earlier planting maximizes yield. Plant after May 8th and you start losing about four-tenths of a bushel per acre per day.

That’s the kind of information that growers need to capitalize on. “Growers today are technologically savvy. They are quick to move if they see an opportunity,” says Conley. “The challenge is sorting out which technology pays and enhances productivity and which technology doesn’t.”

Another valuable conclusion: no-till techniques for soybean yield comparably to conventional practices. That’s important because high commodity prices are tempting cultivation on steeper slopes. Meanwhile, extreme rain events are increasingly common. Unless conservation changes are made, soil erosion rates could double by 2050 compared to 1990. “We need to be able to protect our soil,” says Conley.

Indeed, soil health is a critical element of agricultural resilience—the ability to withstand stress. Healthy soils are more productive. They also retain more moisture, generally demand fewer inputs and return more in the way of ecosystem services (waste decomposition, water filtration and other benefits).

It’s no wonder that many of the climate change adaptation recommendations from WICCI’s ag working group feature a heavy dose of soil conservation.

The almost complete laundry list: expand adoption of currently accepted soil conservation practices; review public policy on soil conservation subsidies; improve measurement and monitoring of soil conservation programs and practices; investigate how bioenergy policies and changing production practices influence soil conservation; devise new metrics for the sustainability of soil and water resources; research better accounting of the costs and benefits of soil management choices.

But other forms of adaptation might not even take place in the field. For example, heavy rain poses challenges besides erosion. Many of Wisconsin’s vegetable crops mature underground—potatoes, carrots, onions—and are vulnerable to damage when soil is saturated. High humidity favors disease development, and the overflow of municipal waste systems can flood downstream fields with pathogens.

CALS/UW Extension horticulturist AJ Bussan PhD’97 is investigating potential plant traits to meet these challenges, but he also says that the vegetable industry has created action plans to respond to major rainfall events from a safety and quality perspective. Even simple refinements in storage techniques—particularly temperature and ventilation management—can help overcome damage.

On a sunny day in early June, Ed Grygleski’s cranberries are in bloom and the bees are busy. Two semi loads of hives arrived the previous week and already are settled in. Some of his fellow growers weren’t so lucky, and their bees are still in transit from other states.

Grygleski has never gotten bees in May before, but he’s also never seen a cranberry blossom on May 15th. “If I didn’t have all my bees right now I’d be screaming on the phone,” he says. “This is perfect weather for pollination.” The more blossoms the bees visit, the better the harvest.

Grygleski’s relaxed demeanor belies a crazy year. The mild March awoke his plants, but then it got cold again and stayed cold. He struggled for more than a month to protect the early vines—not always successfully.

“You can tell the color’s different, the vines just look sick,” he says, pulling up to a damaged bed. “The buds don’t grow out.” The bed will recover, but he estimates an 80 to 90 percent loss this year.

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Posted in Agriculture, Environment, Fall 2012, Featured |