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2024: Regen Ag Tactics vs. Weather Challenges

Scott Patterson • March 12th, 2024.

US Crops in 2024

Agriculture, perhaps surprisingly, is one of five main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. While a significant portion of those emissions have been linked to livestock and fertilizers, there is a path forward to lower emissions using something called regenerative agriculture or regen ag. The main goal of regen ag is to disturb the soil as little as possible. This increases the health of the soil, allowing farmers to use less fertilizer. Regen Ag also increases carbon in the soil that won’t be released into the atmosphere. While regen ag is not a get-rich-overnight type of plan, it has been shown to increase profitability by allowing farmers to spend less on fertilizers and get a better market price for their harvest.

By using a combination of cover crops and crop rotation, farmers can retain soil moisture, increase soil nutrients, fight off most soil-borne disease, and mitigate the extreme weather associated with climate change. Regen ag can be especially useful for farms that have specific types of microclimates.

What is a microclimate?

An Example of a Microclimate

AI illustration showing a mountain-valley microclimate with a farm and a lake. 

A microclimate is a small area that experiences its own type of weather and climate conditions, due to a number of different factors. The most well known examples of microclimates are the urban heat island and the north face.

Urban heat islands are city centers that are warmer than their surroundings because of all the cement and asphalt that absorb more sunlight than areas that have forests and farms.

Another example is the north face of a mountain, which is colder and snowier in the winter compared to the south face of a mountain in the northern hemisphere. This is why most ski resorts are built on the north face of mountains north of the equator.

An Example of a North Face

Image depicting a microclimate with snow on the colder north face,
while the sunnier slope, the south slope is snow-free.

How do microclimates affect farms?

On a farm, there are many influences that affect the climate of nearby crops. If farmland has a nearby lake or river running through it, factors like the temperature of the water and whether it is frozen or unfrozen, and how it is oriented across the farmland have an impact on how crops grow. Similarly, a mountain that runs along a farm may create a focal point for heavier precipitation if the wind is blowing into the mountainside. This is called orographic precipitation. If the wind is blowing away from the mountain, there will be less precipitation, creating a rain-shadow. Mountains also create winds in the evening, called drainage winds. Drainage winds often create cooler temperatures than surrounding areas, especially on a hot day.

Considering microclimates is integral to crop growing strategies. For example, 75% of a farm could be on completely flat land, but the remaining 25% could be at the foot of a mountain, near a river or lake, or in a low spot. Due to these subtle differences in topography, these areas could experience more or less rainfall, colder overnight temperatures, or an increased risk of fog or frost. Having this type of knowledge, farmers can decide which crops to rotate throughout their farmland, based on the microclimate for that farmland or parts of that farmland.

Crop Rotation and Cover Crops

Cover crops and crop rotation are two of the tenets that make up regen ag. They can be combined to help with changing climate conditions and to increase crop yields.

Crop Rotation

Corn and Soybeans

One of the most popular crop rotations worldwide is corn and soybeans. Corn uses a lot of nitrogen in the soil and soybeans add nitrogen back into the soil, so rotating these crops balances the nitrogen in the soil.

It is not only corn and soybean rotations that are effective, as there are many other combinations of crops that are being used worldwide to increase crop resiliency.

In Australia, a wheat-sunflower crop rotation was shown to reduce surface water runoff, increasing soil moisture and potentially preventing flooding. This rotation was shown to reduce evaporation and reduce water in drainage basins. A similar result occurred in New Zealand using a potato-onion rotation. In Quebec Canada it was a potato-oats rotation and in Iowa it was an alfalfa-maize rotation that improved soil health.

There is also a push to diversify the crop rotation even more by adding additional crops to the rotation, further increasing the health of the soil and reducing the need for fertilizers. One idea is to add a small grain and another legume as a cover crop. It has been shown through research that this type of rotation can result in a 13 and 15% increase in corn and soybean yields, respectively. In addition, this type of crop rotation and cover crop can increase income, while decreasing dependency on herbicides.

Cover Crops

Cover Cropping Benefits

Cover crops can also play a big role in crop resilience by suppressing weed growth. Weeds are a problem because they compete with the crop for food, sunlight, and water. It is expected that climate change will lead to more weeds worldwide, but that an effective cover crop and crop rotation plan can eliminate widespread weed dominance. This will allow farmers to better manage weeds while reducing use of weed-killing herbicides, which are bad for the environment.

Regen Ag and Climate Change

Regen ag and Climate Change

As the climate changes, temperatures will continue to increase, causing more frequent heat waves over more areas of the world. Plants require cool temperatures at night, especially in the first half of the growing season, and then warm temperatures during the day. An early season heat wave can have negative effects on plants by creating daytime heat stress on plants and not allowing nighttime temperatures to drop to levels required by different crops. This can stunt the growth of the plant and ultimately reduce the production at harvest.

Short-term, but rapid onset droughts are becoming more common. These are occurring alongside slow-developing, but long-duration droughts. Short and long term droughts can lead to poor soil conditions and lead to either lower yields or the complete loss of a harvest.

Even with ongoing droughts, some areas will see sudden intense rainfalls that lead to short-term flash floods and long term floods that inundate whole fields, destroying an entire season’s worth of crops. With more rain will come more pests and more disease.

Regen ag can help limit the impact of these conditions in the short-term on farms worldwide. Over the long term, regen ag can reduce pollution while potentially increasing profitability.

How could regen ag help in 2024?

As the weather of 2024 continues to play out, the focus will be on the crop rotations in Iowa and the Midwestern US. If an ongoing drought this spring continues into early June both soybeans and corn may see impacts from drought, although corn is affected more than soybeans. Another focus in North America will be hops and grains in the Pacific NW, and southern Ontario where both early season and middle of summer heat waves may threaten the harvests as the crops see delayed growth with the early waves and then stress during the peak heat. For farms that depend on irrigation, lower snow levels this winter may not have immediate effects but become more of an issue by mid-summer when normal water sources run low.

US Crops in 2024

Across the pond, Europe will initially see a potentially wetter than normal spring with periods of cool temperatures which may lead to flooding. Then by summer, drier and hotter conditions will be the risk. Fields that are able to absorb and hold onto the spring rains will likely fare better during the heat waves of the summer, which is where regen ag and crop rotation shine.

In Australia, an unexpectedly wet January provided a little too much soil moisture, but farms that employ regen ag may have been in a better position than farms that use traditional farming methods. While February into March has been much drier and warmer, the weather pattern is expected to transition to a wetter, cooler late winter and spring. This could potentially lead to areas of flooding. Cool wet weather may also lead to an increase in diseases and soil loss during heavy rains for those areas that do not use cover crops or rotate different crops throughout the year.

Summary

Regenerative agriculture has the potential to be the resilient solution the agriculture industry needs to fight climate change extremes and lower greenhouse gas emissions without farmers having to sacrifice their profits. While there may be steep upfront costs, the benefits may be the difference between a successful farm that continues for decades into the future and a farm destroyed by disease, pests, poor soil, and extreme weather. ClimateAi is always monitoring the impact of climate change on current and future growing seasons. Reach out for more detailed information.

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