Cover Crops and Climate Change: The Value of Modeling

I am using a modeling approach to answer questions about the ability of cover crops to mitigate climate risks, as described in a recent video produced in collaboration with the Sustainable Corn Project communication team.

The conservation community of researchers, farmers and practitioners champion the use of cover crops in the Midwest for numerous environmental benefits: reducing water pollution, nutrient recycling, weed suppression, erosion prevention, providing livestock feed, you name it. We also hear anecdotes about cover crops protecting the soil in periods of heavy rain, but what about cover crops in the context of climate change? Cover Crop Soil SamplingThis question is a priority for researchers on the Sustainable Corn project. Climate scientists have documented increases in precipitation intensity over the last several decades in the Midwest, and they anticipate even more in the future. So, can cover crops help mitigate those climate risks?  Continue reading


    2014 – Warmest Year on Record for World, 15th Coldest for Corn Belt

    The year 2014 was considered the warmest year on record for the world, according to three different sources (Japan, NASA, and NOAA). Meanwhile, the Corn Belt experienced the 15th coldest year on record. How can that be?

    First of all, here is how 2014 ranked state by state. Many of the Corn Belt states were much below normal, including the three “I” states – Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana as well as Missouri, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It was the 6th coldest year on record for Illinois and in the top 10% for the other states mentioned. The rest of the Corn Belt was below normal as well. Taken together, this was the 15th coldest year on record for the Corn Belt.


    National Temperature rankings. NOAA National Climatic Data Center

    Continue reading


      November – December Temperature Swings


      The late cold snap in December changed what could have been a rather historic situation, one where average December temperatures were actually warmer than November temperatures.  Data is gradually coming in completing the data for the month of December.  The much colder than average temperatures over the after Christmas have helped to bring down the December averages to close to, but generally slightly cooler than November overall.


      To review what happened over the last two months, November started quite warm, but turned very cold in the middle of the month setting a large number of temperature records as sub-0 F temperatures showed up across parts of the Corn Belt mush earlier than usual.  November ended at 6-10 F below average.  The cold carried on into the first part of December when a sharp change occurred with very warm temperatures across the Corn Belt in December with most of the Upper Midwest 4-8 F above average.    See attached images.

      Nov14TDeptNWSCR Dec14TDeptNWSCR

      Final data are still being accumulated.  Most of the stations around the Midwest and northern plains were within a couple degrees between the two months.  The large majority of stations ended up slightly colder in December than November.  But a few stations largely in northern areas ended up warmer in December than November.

      How odd is this situation?  First we have to look at climatology.  There is a range of results across the Corn Belt comparing averages for the two months.  But generally the average difference between November and December is 10-14 F.  So that they are even close show the oddity of the event with November that cold and December that warm.

      Has it ever happened?  In some locations, no.  But we can go back to a couple years and find a number of stations where it has happened, 1896 and 1959.  Many stations have both of these with more showing the situation in 1959.

      Enjoy the little bit of climatic history.


        New Long Range Outlooks – El Nino

        The new long range outlooks from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center were released this week.  There was little new information for much of the Corn Belt except in the shorter term.  Let’s review some of the information included.

        For January another major pattern shift is expected from late December into at least early January where a period of colder than average conditions is very likely throughout the Northern Plains/Upper Midwest.  The 30 day outlook for January reflects that cold area with an increased chance of cold temperatures from the Midwest and central Plains southward.  The main issues related to this are on potential winter wheat damage with the cold and to livestock.  There are no precipitation indications different from average during January through the region.

        For the 90 day outlook (January – March) the outlooks still bank on El Nino having an impact as the outlooks are largely El Nino-looking.  Specifically this includes cooler temperatures more likely across the southern part of the Midwest, drier than average more likely over the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley and potential for increased precipitation in the central plains.

        The current El Nino status is that Sea Surface temperatures are in El Nino territory, but have not persisted as long as needed for classification as an El Nino.  Therefore, El Nino is still pending.  Even if El Nino does occur (current probability is 65%) the impacts are likely weaker because this is going to be a weak El Nino.  Therefore, whether the CPC outlooks will play out is somewhat in question over the 90 day period.

        Looking ahead to the planting season there are no strong indications of issues at this point other than the drier than average area in the outlooks over the Great Lakes/Ohio Valley.  Dry soil moisture conditions have impacted much of the corn belt during the fall, which aided harvest.  But these soils will need some recharge come spring.  The eastern Dakotas and much of Minnesota are reflected as Abnormally Dry (D0) on the US Drought Monitor.  At this point most of these issues with dry soils are only potential problems and could actually aid in spring planting allowing soils to warm more quickly and more readily allow field work.  Conditions will have to be monitored for changes during the next few months based on the rest of winter precipitation and early spring rainfalls.


          Extending the Rotation Beyond Corn and Beans


          Dick Sloan is a member of the Sustainable Corn Project advisory board, chairman of the Lime Creek Watershed Council and a Practical Farmers of Iowa Outreach Leader.

          Dick Sloan is a member of the Sustainable Corn Project advisory board, chairman of the Lime Creek Watershed Council and a Practical Farmers of Iowa Outreach Leader.

          Sustainable Corn Project advisory board member, Dick Sloan, and Iowa State University Agronomy professor, Matt Liebman, will present Extending the Rotation Beyond Corn and Beans as part of the Practical Farmers of Iowa Fall Farminar Series Tuesday, November 25, starting at 7 p.m. CST. Click HERE for direct access to the archived Farminar program.


          Dick started planting a rye cover crop in 2011 to improve his Soil Conditioning Index following soybeans and in two years made a commitment to planting multi-species nitrogen scavenging cover crops on all of his 720 rotated crop acres.  To diversify his cropping system and ensure availability of winter small grains, Dick planted 13 acres of rye for harvest in 2013 and expanded to 20 acres in 2014.  This Fall he planted 10 acres of winter wheat in addition to the 20 acres of rye for harvest in 2015.  This will provide Dick with the majority of his cover crop seed, provide an alternative to his corn/corn/soybean rotation, reduce costs by growing legumes after small grain harvest, increasing sustainability and resilience.

          Field reviewMatt Liebman, and his research group at Iowa State University, has been conducting long-term research comparing two-, three- and four-year crop rotations. His recent work shows that extended crop rotations can lead to a reduced reliance on herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilizer, and less use of fossil fuels. A Leopold Center On the Ground Video by Matt provides some insight into the topic he will be discussing on Tuesday evening.

          This Farminar will be a great opportunity to gain some insight from a farmer and researcher about the opportunities and obstacles to adding a third crop to the typical corn and soybean rotation. Dick and Matt are both enthusiastic about extending and improving cropping systems to improve economic and environmental performance.


            What’s up with El Nino?

            What’s up with El Nino?  Short answer is still not too much.  The monthly El Nino summary has been posted today at the Climate Prediction Center (see link below). The basic message is that reaching El Nino conditions is still likely (now 58%) lower than last month. Conditions in the Pacific are still not coming together well in the coupling between ocean and atmosphere. Sea surface temperatures are relatively warm.

            The long range outlooks still are based on El Nino conditions occurring (updates will come out in 2 weeks). But the weak El Nino would allow other variables to impact what happens this winter including changes in the North Pacific, North Atlantic and over the pole.

            End result is that some things that look like El Nino are still likely to happen during the winter.  But the confidence of being a very warm winter in the northern US is somewhat less.  The likelihood is lower because of the reduced El Nino chances.  And even if El Nino does occur, weak El Ninos have less overall influence and can more easily be modified by other conditions.

            See the full outlook from the Climate Prediction Center:



              There’s still time to collect samples for the cornstalk nitrate nitrogen test

              Fall is the time to evaluate corn nitrogen use efficiency by using the end-of-season cornstalk nitrate test. The test measures nitrate-nitrogen left in the corn plant following maturity.

              According to the most recent USDA Crop Progress report released on October 27 just 46% of the nation’s corn was harvested so there is still time to collect samples for analysis.  Ideally samples should be collected 1 to 3 weeks after maturity (black layer), however, over the course of 15 years of utilizing the test I have collected samples up to, and immediately after harvest. Post harvest samples can be collected if the corn header is raised high enough to allow an 8-inch stalk segment to be collected starting 6 inches above the ground. If using a head with shredders samples will need to be collected before harvest. Don’t allow stalks that have been harvested to get rained on before collection or nitrates will start washing out of the stalks.

              The video provides a demonstration of sample collection and preparation in order to send to a lab for analysis.


                Resilient Ag Conference Videos Now Available

                Farmer_Panel_2014In August, over 200 Corn-belt farmers, crop advisors and scientists gathered in Ames, Iowa, to discuss climate uncertainty, impacts on agriculture and what can be done to make the agricultural landscape environmentally healthy and productive. Presentations included the most recent findings by scientists, from 10 land-grant universities and an agricultural research station, who are part of a USDA-supported Cropping Systems Coordinated Agricultural Project, led by Lois Wright Morton, sociology professor at Iowa State. Videos of the conference sessions, including the farmer panel session and remarks by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack; speaker PowerPoints; posters; Resilient Agriculture Magazine; and other conference handouts are now available for viewing/downloading at


                  NWS Outlook – Wet October for Northern Corn Belt

                  Much of the northern Corn Belt has an increased chance of above-average precipitation in October, according to the NWS Climate Prediction Center. This follows on the heels of above-average precipitation over the last 30 days across the Corn Belt.

                  In the map below, areas shaded in green have an increased chance of above-average precipitation in October and include the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, northern Illinois, and northeast Missouri.


                  Continue reading


                    Corn belt heat into early September

                    The main part of the Corn belt is going to get some help with heat over the next couple weeks while the northern and western corn belt will hold steady or lose ground compared to average on GDD accumulation.

                    The 8-14 day outlooks have been consistent over the last few days holding in a ridge of the main part of the corn belt.  This situation will allow above average temperatures during this period.  The additional heat will be very beneficial for the development of corn, which has been lagging a little through the season in certain places.  See the 8-14 day outlook:


                    Northern areas of the Corn belt have been running further behind development throughout the year and have acres that are at risk of not reaching maturity or being harvested at very high moisture content based on the freeze date and additional heat through the rest of the season.

                    If you wish to check where you corn crop sits with current development check out this tool from the USDA – AFRI funded U2U group:


                    This tool allows you to check development based on your location, planting date and variety.  Updated daily it gives you the chance to check conditions anywhere in the corn belt.

                    The most recent outlook will not help with the slower development across the northwestern corn belt.  This area will need to have a longer period this fall to reach maturity and dry down.