Killer heat waves, melting ice sheets that will raise ocean levels, higher night-time temperatures, more drought, increased humidity, stronger storms, changing rainfall patterns and new threats from weeds, pests and diseases due to changing weather conditions.
That pretty much sums up the pessimistic conclusions from two recent reports on climate change on the major challenges American agriculture will be facing during the remainder of this century. However, a careful analysis of both reports demonstrates bright spots for both no-tilling and cover cropping.
I’m convinced the expanded use of no-till acres will play a major role in overcoming not only anticipated climate change concerns, but also in finding new ways to feed the world.
How Bad Could It Be?
The two reports certainly weren’t positive about the risks of climate change on our growing need for more food. In fact, “disaster” was used a number of times in describing potential agricultural concerns.
The Risky Business Project, a nonpartisan group headed up by several national business and former government leaders, issued its report earlier this summer, Their report projects up to $106 billion in losses to coastal property that could end up being below sea level due to melting ice caps, as well as a 3% reduction in the productivity of outside workers due to more extremely hot days and a growing demand for electricity to overcome hotter weather.
The report says the Southeast could see up to 4 months with daily high temperatures reaching over 95 F by the end of this century. This would have a significant impact on crop yields.
Due to hotter Midwestern weather, the report projects astounding yield reductions of as much as 19% by mid-century, and 63% by the end of this century. With the number of extremely hot nights expected to increase by as much as 30% in the Midwest, additional crop stress could lead to lower yields and reduced crop quality.
The second report, a recent federal government national climate assessment, doesn’t paint as bad a global warming picture. Even so, it predicts dramatic reductions in both crop yields and farm profits due to climate change. It states that we can expect average temperatures across the country to increase by up to 5.4 F over the next 35 years.
This report anticipates regional shifts in crop acreage, with more heat- and drought-tolerant crops being planted and a move north for traditional Midwestern crops such as soybeans and corn.
The report says growers can expect precipitation extremes to become more intensified and lead to more irrigated acres. The authors anticipate that weed and insect control may become more difficult and that warmer winters may have a serious impact on disease control.
Moisture will be a major concern too, since crop yields are normally more affected by available soil water than by temperature changes.
While Iowa data indicates no significant change in annual precipitation rates in recent years, an increase in the number of heavier rainfalls has led to growing erosion worries. Concerns due to inadequate infiltration rates represent still another benefit for increasing no-tilled acres.
No-Till To The Rescue
Donald Reicosky says the solution is having more growers adopt permanent no-tillage and cover-crop systems. The retired USDA Agricultural Research Service soil scientist in Morris, Minn., says keeping the soil covered and growing with living roots all year long is a critical component of erosion control, tackling the negatives of climate change and improving the health and function of the soil.
“The no-till system is the only strategy and technology to protect the soil, while at the same time enabling seeding for subsequent crops,” Reicosky says. “The key components are continuous crop residue cover, minimum soil disturbance, more diverse rotations and the expanded use of cover crops.”
Whether you call it climate change or global warming, it’s something you’re going to have to learn to deal with in the future. But those of you already no-tilling are definitely ahead of the game when it comes to tackling these challenges and finding new opportunities for more profitable farming.