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Spring Farming in the Northeast, in an Era of Climate Change

Monday, April 24, 2017 to Friday, May 5, 2017
Farming is an inherently risky business. Farmers routinely plan for and respond to equipment failures, weather events, market fluctuations, new regulations and other disruptions. Climate change has been added to this big heap of threats, making food and fiber production in the Northeast even less predictable and more stressful than in the past.  
Farmers in the Northeast are already experiencing many effects of climate change and severe weather events, and this variability is only expected to increase in coming years. Many farmers are making changes to their production systems and routines to try to reduce some of the risks associated with climate change and severe weather events. This is especially true for risks associated with less predictable spring weather.
Two of the biggest early spring weather-related risks on the farms I work with in New York State are related to increased spring rainfall: manure runoff and surface soil erosion. Though last frost has tended to come earlier and earlier, data analysis reveals that precipitation in the 3 weeks prior to last frost has increased (See Figure 1). Spring rains are now more plentiful and intense while soils in early spring are generally frozen or saturated, so infiltration is minimal and runoff risk is high. To reduce and manage these risks, Northeast farmers have moved towards some new strategies. Many farms have expanded their manure storage capacity to avoid the need to spread manure during risky wet and frozen or saturated conditions. Federal and regional programs have helped to fund manure storage construction and more farms have prioritized this investment.  As a result, many more farms are able to fill manure structures rather than land-apply manure during early spring, waiting for warmer and drier conditions for this operation. An important consequence of waiting for better conditions, however, is the need for bigger and faster manure application equipment, so spring manure spreading operations do not cause a delay in crop planting. This equipment is another added investment that many farms need to make.
To address risk of surface soil erosion between main crops, more farms are fitting winter cover crops into their cropping systems. This is no small achievement for any producer. Corn production remains a high priority for most dairy, livestock, and crop farms in the Northeast, and corn harvest leaves little time to plant and establish a cover crop afterward. More farms are squeezing in this fall task despite the tight schedule. Winter cover crops are far from universal across the landscape at this point, but more farmers are seeing the need for, and the benefits of, a winter cover crop.  It’s a topic that continues to arise in discussion and consideration on most farms. As an added incentive, dairy and livestock farmers consider spring cover crop growth to be an insurance plan for a poor forage production year. They can harvest the cover crop for forage, if needed, in the spring. If they don’t need forage, the benefit is an added organic amendment contributing organic matter and protection to the soil. Farmers are experts at adaptation and masters of resourcefulness – key traits that will serve them well as climate change continues to challenge their operations in numerous ways.  


Figure 1: Trend in Northeastern U.S. for earlier last frost (black line) and trend in rainfall amounts in the 21 d prior to last frost (green bars) for the historical and projected period of 1980 – 2100. (Source: A. DeGaetano, Northeast Regional Climate Center and Cornell University, unpublished)

By Kitty O’Neil, PhD, CCA

Regional Field Crops & Soils Specialist
North Country Regional Ag Team
Cornell University Cooperative Extension