Climate change can be a loaded phrase, but no matter the causation, there have been shifts in the climate in the past 20 years. Craig Sheaffer and Jochum Wiersma of the University of Minnesota-Extension spoke on how climate change is opening a window of opportunity for farmers in a virtual session Feb. 3.
    Wiersma, University of Minnesota-Extension small grains specialist, began the session with an overview of cereal crops for grain and cover.
    “Looking at the climate projections for Minnesota, the data shows there will be a more pronounced effect of the minimum temperature and maximum temperature during winter months,” Wiersma said. “But there will be a cooler and wetter start of the growing season.”
    Wiersma also predicts a more pronounced effect on daily minimum temperatures in the summer and more severe weather singularity events. Events like a massive thunderstorm hitting one farm and a few miles away, no precipitation.
    “In short, (Minnesota’s climate) will be a lot more like Iowa, Missouri and parts of eastern Kansas are today,” Wiersma said.
    As a consequence of the change in weather trends, the growing season will be affected.
    “The increase in carbon dioxide concentrations is more advantageous for some crops, like soybeans, wheat, sugar beets and C4 species corn, but not for others,” Wiersma said. “So, you really have to know what you’re planting, and how it will perform in the long run.”  
    He also indicated the growing season will be extended but weighted toward the end of the season.
    Another predicted change is less days suitable for fieldwork due to cold or wet weather.
    “That gives us a better idea of how these changes will affect our season,” Wiersma said. “Since 1995 we’ve been collecting data and tracking the precipitation in this area.”
    Wiersma presented data indicating days suitable for fieldwork in the past 25 years. His data showed how from 1995 to 2005, year to year there was not much change. From 2005 to 2015, dates suitable for fieldwork trended higher than the previously established average, and since 2015, they have been trending lower. There have been fewer days, on average, that have been suitable for field work each year in the past five years.
    “It doesn’t appear as the whole season is changing, but spring days are trending up a little bit, and the alternating wet or dry yearly cycle is pronounced at this time,” Wiersma said. “The bottom line from this data is that you’ll have less time to cover more acres.”
    The final quality of certain commodities matters more than others, making the decision of what to rotate into a crop more weighted on what the weather will be like. For example, one would not want to plant soybeans on a year that follows a particularly dry year, because as Wiersma pointed out, the years have been alternating which is wet or dry.
    “All of this is successful in theory, but economies of scale still apply,” Wiersma said. “Equipment is getting bigger and faster. The challenge of physics and logistics still create upper bounds, and there is a point where there’s too much.”
    Wiersma suggested modifying a traditional crop rotation of corn and soybeans to add a third crop to cover the field in the winter.
    Dr. Craig Sheaffer spoke from his expertise working as a professor in the department of agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota.
    “These fields are just sitting empty October through June and can produce a nice crop of winter wheat or other cereal grains,” Sheaffer said.
    He suggested a variety of crops like hybrid rye, winter wheat, kernza and hairy vetch.
    “Perennial grasses are great crops and contribute a lot to the environment, but they do have some issues,” Sheaffer said.
    Cover crops boost soil health but can cause issues if not properly maintained. For example, kernza is a strong-rooted perennial that can lead to detrimental results if planted in an area where drainage tile is used.
    Sheaffer said that he has not looked at specific data regarding this, but in principle, the notion raises some concerns.
    The discussion-focused session allowed for audience participation and growers’ questions to be answered directly.
    An audience question was asked about the viability of winter oats or winter barley as a crop for southern Minnesota farmers. Wiersma said not yet. Winter hardiness of the crops are inadequate at this point in time. Winter barley is slightly more winter-hardy than winter oats but both species have a long way to go to get where winter wheat is.
    “Minnesota is truly the transition zone between winter cereals, because it’s too cold in the winter, and spring cereals, because it’s too hot in the summer,” Wiersma said.
    Both Sheaffer and Wiersma suggested researching land, crop variety and markets before diving into a third crop rotation, but in the long run, these practices will pay off for farmers.