As the climate continues to change, we are seeing more frequent, extreme weather events. With these weather events occurring more often, considerations on how those events impact agriculture need to be addressed. Trent Ford, State Climatologist at the Illinois State Water Survey, Connor Sible, a Visiting Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Illinois Department of Crop Sciences, and John Zumwalt, a farmer from Sheldon, IL, talk about extreme weather trends and how farmers can mitigate their impacts.
Volatility in the weather patterns
Historically, weather patterns have been shifting towards increased precipitation intensity and variability. While Ford says it’s hard to answer climate questions based on the uncertainty of predictive models, he does project increases in rain intensity and extreme rainfall events. There is nothing indicating a shift away from this trend, but the degree to which it happens is unknown.
Ford confirms that there are now longer periods of dryness in between wet conditions. It isn’t a matter of total rainfall, but how that rainfall is spread across the summer. Changes in absolute precipitation are only 2-5%, which Ford assures is nominal. It is the characteristics that matter more, such as the length of dry spells and the level of water that soil can take in. Despite an outlook of Illinois becoming wetter, seeing increased drought stress is likely from rising summer temperatures and evaporation.
Impact of extreme weather on agriculture
Whether it comes from the Prairie Research Institute (PRI), the College of Agriculture, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at University of Illinois, or Illinois Extension, all research points in the same direction. The top strategies to minimize the effects of extreme weather events include cover cropping, crop rotation, and some perennial cropping. Not only do these methods tout weed suppression and economic benefits, but they also display significant climate benefits. Reducing nutrient runoff, decreasing topsoil erosion, and helping soil infiltration rates are all relevant climate benefits.
In a heavy rainfall event, the topsoil will quickly become saturated and take in a fraction of the water. The rest will become nutrient-filled runoff. By increasing infiltration, runoff is decreased, and the water in the soil stays put to protect the soil in the event of lingering dry spells.
Ford encourages farmers to be proactive and think long-term. While it’s not feasible to see conservation benefits overnight, the year-to-year variability of the weather will ensure that the years-long wait for the benefits of no-till will pay off.
Connor Sible has been working with Dr. Esther Ngumbi, Dr. Angela Kent, and Dr. Fred Below from the University of Illinois on understanding extreme climate events and what they mean for crops moving forward. A current study is being conducted that induced 6-7 days of soil saturation in near-flooding conditions. Dr. Ngumbi examined how the plant changes on the inside to respond to stress. Dr. Kent explored what happened underground, including whether beneficial or pathogenic microbes came back faster during plant and soil recovery. Sible said this will lead to a better understanding of how crops and soil react to extreme weather, and how they recover to get good economic yield.
Sible’s simple but powerful advice to farmers is to be patient; don’t give up on crops too early. As farmers are facing more intense weather extremes, learning how to best manage for optimal yield and mitigate the impacts of these extremes will require patience and observation.
A farmer's perspective
In preparation for a continuation of weather extremes, John Zumwalt continues to expand his waterway network and has adopted no-till to limit runoff. Since rains are fewer but heavier, Zumwalt plans on installing more tile drainage to handle these. He believes that a key thing people don’t see is how tile lowers the water table in soil, thus increasing its capacity to absorb water.
Technology has impacted Zumwalt greatly, as he can now find outlets he never had before from GPS and depth control. He just installed a system that snakes through hills and drains spots that couldn’t be done before, thanks to technology.
Zumwalt’s advice to other farmers is to observe what direction water is flowing when raining. By letting the water flow naturally, farmers can evaluate where to expand their waterways. He also encourages farmers to develop some areas specifically for flooding events, like constructed wetlands or ponds, to capture and store excess water and nutrients. Cost-share funding can help offset installation costs. Another consideration would be to plant less productive ground into perennial crops. Farmers need to be proactive and think long-term.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Rachel Curry is an Agriculture and Agribusiness Educator for two Nitrogen Priority Watersheds (Flint-Henderson and Lower Rock River Watersheds) and is housed in the Galva office of the Henry, Mercer, Rock Island, and Stark Counties Extension Unit. Rachel earned a BS in Environmental Studies from Knox College and an MS in Environmental Science and Soil Science from Iowa State University with an emphasis on soil fertility. She is interested in sharing information on the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy and agricultural conservation practices through discussion and outreach.
Nicole Haverback is a Watershed Outreach Associate for two Phosphorus Priority Watersheds (Embarras and Little Wabash River Watersheds) and is housed in the Effingham office of the Clay, Effingham, Fayette, and Jasper Counties Extension Unit. Nicole earned a BS in Agriculture and Rural Policy Studies from Iowa State University in May of 2022. She is interested in sharing information on the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy and agriculture conservation practices through discussion and outreach.
Sam Henry is a Research and Extension Experience for Undergraduates (REEU) intern working with Rachel and Nicole during Summer of 2023. She is an Agricultural Engineering student at the University of Illinois. Outside of classes, she works with Dr. Rodriguez in his BioMASS Lab and learns about alternative agricultural methods in Illini Urban Farmers. She is in her third year and is passionate about the nexus of clean water, sustainable agriculture, natural resources, and sustainability.
ABOUT THE BLOG
At Illinois Extension, we’re working to improve water quality at home and downstream. Every month, our Watershed Outreach Associates will bring you stories highlighting agricultural conservation practices, current research projects and results, and from the field farmer interviews. The Nutrient Loss Reduction blog covers conservation practices recommended by the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, timely updates, farm safety, and new decision tools to help farmers and producers reduce the nutrients leaving their field. Want to get notified when new blog posts are available? Subscribe at go.illinois.edu/SubscribeINLRS.