Weather and climate: Managing two of the most uncontrollable factors in agriculture

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Jeff Andresen, MSU state climatologist has been examining the impacts of climate on corn production in the Midwest  (view larger image)

In general, Michigan is becoming warmer (1 degree warmer on average in the past 120 years) and wetter (a 10 to 15 percent increase in precipitation over the same period). And the growing season has lengthened by about 1.5 weeks in the past 30 years, resulting overall in new challenges and opportunities for the state’s agriculture industry.

Michigan state climatologist Jeff Andresen has worked directly with farmers to help manage and project the impact of weather and climate conditions on agricultural production systems since coming to Michigan State University (MSU) in 1991.

“If we had perfect [weather and climate] information about the future, we could help revolutionize the way farming is done. But of course, the reality is that we don’t,” said Andresen, professor of geography and Extension specialist. “The key is a better understanding of how weather and climate influence agriculture and the development of new techniques to make forecasts more reliable and useful. Ultimately, we hope to provide new scientific information that reduces weather-related risk.”

Andresen is a member of a team of researchers who are utilizing three process- based crop simulation models to identify and examine the impacts of climate on corn production in the Midwest over the past century. The 12-state region accounts for more than 80 percent of U.S. corn production and 25 percent of global output. It is part of the Useful to Useable (U2U) Project, a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture project seeking to improve the resilience and profitability of farming operations in the region amid climate variability and change.

In the work carried out at MSU, the process-based CERES (Crop Environment Resource Synthesis) -Maize crop model was used to simulate the impacts of weather and climate on corn production systems. Model validation was carried out with individual plot and county observations. The model was run with weather data for representative soils and cultivars from 1981 to 2012 to examine spatial and temporal yield variability within the region.

The researchers are also examining the influence of other crop models and spatial scales on regional yield estimation, as well as a yield gap analysis between observed and attainable yields. An additional study was carried out at 18 sites to examine historical trends from 1901 to 2012.

In general, Andresen said, the model estimates are in agreement with observed yields, especially in central sections of the region. He added that low precipitation and soil moisture stress were chief limitations to simulated crop yields during the past century. The study suggests that at least part of the observed yield increases in the region during recent decades have occurred as the result of wetter, less stressful growing season weather conditions.

“We’re collaborating with Purdue, Nebraska, Iowa State and many other Midwestern land-grant universities,” he said. “Primarily we’re looking at variability in the current production setting and coming up with new information to help growers make more informed decisions related to seed selection, use of irrigation, field drainage tiling and variation in planting date to determine viable options to remove some of the uncertainty from the equation. We’re also looking to assist researchers and the industry on the development of more efficient agricultural production technologies.”

In another project, Andresen has teamed up with MSU horticulture professor James Flore to examine mist cooling to delay bloom and reduce the risk of frost damage in apples and cherries. Tree fruit in the Great Lakes region is especially vulnerable to cold damage in the spring after the trees break out of dormancy. Unfortunately, the number of spring freezes following initial fruit development in the region has increased in recent decades, Andresen said.

Conventional frost protection methods such as wind machines offer some protection, but they can be costly and are not effective against some types of freezes. Applying water with conventional sprinkler systems during the late stages of dormancy and early vegetative stages has been shown to reduce vulnerability to frost damage by cooling the plant tissue and delaying growth and development. Andresen emphasized, however, that the traditional technology requires large amounts of water, which leaches fertilizers and other nutrients from the soil, causes collateral tree damage from ice formation and carries increased risk of pathogens/ diseases.

The MSU researchers are investigating the potential use of a new technology called solid set canopy delivery systems (SSCD) to delay the growth and development of tree fruit and reduce the risk of cold-related damage. Flore, who is leading the project, said SSCD is increasingly used in high- density orchards for application of fertilizer and other spray applications and could theoretically provide the water necessary for cooling with a tiny fraction of the rates used by a conventional sprinkler.

The experiments have been conducted at four orchard locations in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula during the early portions of the 2013 and 2014 growing seasons.

“Thus far, the results are encouraging. SSCD mist applications during the two growing seasons delayed bloom of apple and cherry by five to 11 days on average relative to untreated blocks, and spring frost damage was found to be less for the treated blocks,” Andresen said. “There was no apparent increase in disease or fruit set problems with the treated blocks. Finally, the amount of water needed for cooling with the new technology was far less than with conventional sprinkler systems.”

See other articles from the AgBioResearch annual report.

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