Mother Nature is unleashing more erratic and severe weather events than ever before. If farmers want to remain productive and profitable, they will have to adapt to climate change.
That’s the message delivered Monday by farmers, researchers and agriculture experts at the “Agriculture in a Changing Climate: What the Future Holds for Iowa” forum in Des Moines. The event was co-sponsored by Solutions from the Land — a national farm advocacy group at the forefront of resolving food system, energy, environmental and climate challenges and achieving global sustainable development goals by 2030 — and Iowa State University (ISU).
The Iowa Smart Agriculture Initiative, which explores and assesses the impacts that extreme weather has on the state’s No. 1 industry, led several panel discussions.
“This is about mobilizing leaders, solutions from the land and (helping) the next generations in Iowa,” said Ray Gaesser, farmer and chairman of Iowa Smart Agriculture.
Epic flooding this year along the Mississippi River caused at least $2 billion in damage, according to a report released by the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative in late June. Flooding along the Missouri River led to at least $3 billion in damage, based on early estimates in Iowa and Nebraska last spring.
Persistent rain delayed planting and harvest throughout the Midwest and prevented farmers from planting more than 19.6 million acres — including 3.9 million acres just in South Dakota. Midsummer drought also curbed yields in portions of Iowa and the Corn Belt.
These are the latest examples of the “new normal” farmers face, organizers said.
“Farmers aren’t denying that the climate is changing,” said Wayne Fredericks, an Osage, Iowa, farmer and staunch conservationist. “We’re trying to figure out how to farm as it happens … and profitably.”
Rising greenhouse gas emissions are primarily responsible for climate change, according to experts. Those emissions continue to rise. A United Nations report released on Tuesday (here) highlighted that greenhouse gas emissions globally rose an average of 1.5% per year over the past decade. To slow the rate of global temperature increases, the U.N. cited that emissions must decline an average of 7.6% per year over the next decade.
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The wettest 12-month period in U.S. history in more than 120 years of record keeping occurred from May 2018 through April of this year. The lower 48 states averaged 36.2 inches of precipitation. Since 1901, the average surface temperature across the contiguous 48 states has risen at an average rate of 0.14 degree Fahrenheit per decade. It’s accelerated since the late 1970s, and eight of the top 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998.
In Iowa, April through June have been particularly wet in recent years, averaging more than 40% above average since 2008. The frequency of extreme precipitation events has increased, with the highest number of 2-inch rain events occurring in the last decade. Iowa just experienced its eighth wettest October on record, averaging 4.65 inches of precipitation, while Des Moines hit an all-time high at nearly 7.4 inches.
The average annual temperature has increased in Iowa about 1 degree over the past two decades, according to federal climatic data. Winter warming is evident, nighttime temperatures have increased and humidity is on the rise.
DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Michael Palmerino said farmers often debate whether the change in climate is cyclical or a long-lasting pattern. If the six-year stretch of wet weather continues, which it appears it will, the pattern favors the latter, Palmerino said.
“I think farmers at this point have to start looking at or adopting changes (to cope with a changing climate),” Palmerino said.
Farmers say climate change makes crop and livestock production more difficult.
“We used to have eight weeks to get crops in,” said Fred Yoder, an Ohio farmer and co-chair of Solutions from the Land. “Now it seems if you don’t get it done in two weeks, you miss the window.”
Iowa Smart Agriculture builds on work that Solutions from the Land has been doing across the country where leading farmers help inspire, educate and equip agricultural partners to enhance climate resilience and sustain productivity. It also provides producers with the tools and knowledge they need to make informed decisions and advocate for needed changes on the land.
“Agriculture is not broken, but it can be improved,” Yoder said. “We don’t have all the answers today, but we have some of them.”
Farmers and researchers suggested several conservation and other measures farmers could adopt — cover crops, no-till and/or conservation tillage, in-field and edge-of-field conservation practices, etc. — to make their farms more climate resilient.
“We think putting perennials on the landscape is one of the most powerful tools to manage climate change,” said Emily Heaton, an ISU assistant professor of agronomy.
ISU researchers have found that converting as little as 10% of a row-crop field to prairie can help reduce soil erosion, retain nutrients and provide excellent habitat for wildlife. Sowing strips of native prairie species like switchgrass, which once dominated Iowa’s and the Midwest’s landscape but has nearly disappeared due to production agriculture, in farm fields can protect them from intense rain events and drought.
Heaton said extremely long, dense root systems in fields act like rebar in concrete, keeping soil, nutrients and water mostly in place. If a farmer planted a row-crop field with 10% prairie grass, they can expect a 37% reduction in water runoff, a 95% reduction in sediment loss, 77% less phosphorus loss and 70% less nitrate loss.
“There’s always spots within fields that lose money,” which are ideal for perennials, she said. “Prairie strips are getting more popular.”
Bryan Sievers farms 2,200 acres near Stockton, Iowa, and operates a 2,200-head cattle feedlot. He said he’ll consider adding prairie strips to a host of measures already in place, like grass waterways and terraces, to combat effects of extreme weather.
Sievers suggested a unique way to boost productivity and soil health. He built two manure digesters at a cost of $7.5 million. The digesters process 55,000 gallons of manure a day from the feedlot and other area facilities. Methane is turned into electricity, which is sold to pay for the equipment. Liquid and solid manure is used for fertilizer, which builds organic matter and improves soil health.
“Certainly, weather and climate challenges we face are very significant,” Sievers said. “A lot of my corn and soybeans went in in June, and despite those challenges, I still harvested 70-bushel beans and 230-bushel corn.
Data collection will be one of the best ways to combat climate change, according to grain and cattle farmer Bill Couser of rural Nevada, Iowa. His family, with the help of Bayer and other groups, created a 220-acre AGvocacy Learning Farm.
Farming and conservation practices are being closely monitored. Cover crops, a saturated buffer, bioreactor and automated drainage water management are also being studied. It’s a place where urban and rural residents can see proactive conservation work and data can back up efficacy claims.
“We can rely on research, like on Bill’s farm, to show that if you implement this practice, you can see this reduction in runoff or sedimentation,” Sievers added.
Dave Walton, who farms near Wilton, Iowa, is convinced no-till and cover crops are the key to withstanding several-inch downpours and drought. And maybe, more importantly, is keeping an open mind to try new things.
“One thing I learned is sacred cows make real good hamburgers,” Walton said.
Matthew Wilde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @progressivwilde