There are ways to deal with weather

There are ways to deal with weather

Late in 2019 after the “Christmas Eve of Fog,” temperatures reached a balmy 60 F, and we even saw the sun, as rare a sighting in December in Ohio as reindeer with red noses.

Two days ago 55 F and steady rains turned the creeks muddy and saturated the soil to the point that we’re pretty sure an uprooted tree caused our short power outage, the second in just over two weeks. (We live in a wooded valley.)

And now as I write this, snowflakes are falling. What is normal weather?

I’m looking back over the notes I took several weeks ago during the “Extreme Farming” meeting coordinated by Ashland SWCD and supported by Holmes, Wayne and Richland SWCDs.

Jeff Hattey, PhD, a professor of soil science and state extension specialist in soil management at the Ohio State University, used weather-station data from the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster to reference climate changes over the past 120 years.

According to NASA, the difference between weather and climate is a measure of time. Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere “behaves” over relatively long periods of time.

In the last 120 years or so, the average temperature has increased, and the growing season is extended by about three weeks since data records of 1890. Hattey explained that energy from tropical areas has increased tropical storms and hurricanes significantly over the last 30 years. From 1960-89 there were 550 such storms, and from 1990-2019 there were a whopping 900 tropical storms and hurricanes. And that energy makes it all the way to Ohio in the form of increased precipitation.

And almost all soil erosion in Ohio is the result of water erosion, versus wind erosion in other parts of the U.S. (think dust bowls). The increased energy in rainfall is resulting in more total rainfall and rainfall intensity. Ohio used to be in a sweet spot that received rainfall in low-energy showers.

Weather data shows in 1890 there was an annual average of 2.5 precipitation events over 1.25 inches of rainfall; now the average is five to six events. I’m sure many of you would argue that number is low, depending where you live. If the current climate trend continues, Ohio’s climate will be similar to Little Rock, Arkansas at the end of the century.

As a farmer, what practices can help manage intense rainfalls? Of the variables that make up soil loss — climate, soil properties, slope characteristics, conservation structures (such as terracing) and crop management — farmers have the most control over crop management. The key is to protect soil aggregates so they are stable and do not erode.

Hattey projected a photo of a soil aggregate magnified significantly to show open pore spaces that will absorb water and allow roots to penetrate to stabilize soil. Pore spaces are critical to healthy soil. Basically reducing soil loss begins with residue on the soil surface at all times.

Dr. Libby Dayton and Hattey have been instrumental in developing the OnField Ohio tool, which farmers can use to see how management changes — such as cover crops, no-till and crop rotation on a field by field basis — will affect soil loss.

Joe Christner, Holmes SWCD water-quality technician, has been working with farmers to use the OnField Ohio tool and would love the chance to work with more. In addition Holmes SWCD coordinates a cover-crop program that provides cost-share from the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District to sow cover crops. And our partners at USDA NRCS can provide conservation plans and insight into conservation practices to reduce erosion.

Call our office at 330-674-2811 ext. 3 for more information about crop management to increase soil stability. Farmers can’t change the weather, but they can make management changes to help deal with the “new normal” of extreme weather.

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