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Growing Seasons in a Changing Climate

The changing climate presents challenges and opportunities for U.S. agricultural production, forest resources, and rural economies. These threats have significant implications not just for farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners, but for all Americans. Land managers across the country are observing the effects on seasons due to a changing climate. 

The effects on seasons of a changing climate are already being seen across the country and vary region to region: temperatures have risen across seasons, growing seasons have become longer, precipitation patterns have changed, and extreme precipitation events have increased in frequency and severity. Because of the sensitivity of agriculture to weather and climate conditions, these impacts can have substantial direct and indirect effects production and profitability.

  • Crops and livestock will be subjected to increasing temperatures, increasing CO2, and more variable water availability caused by changing precipitation patterns and access to irrigation. These factors effect plant growth and yield and environmental conditions for livestock production.
  • Changing seasonality of precipitation may result in excess water during off seasons and limited water during critical crop growth periods.  This situation will require more water management in removing/retaining water throughout the year.
  • A lengthening growing season will also mean insects spawning multiple generations per season and producing more generations per year. In addition to adding more insects to the environment, this can lead to pests developing greater resistance to insecticides.
  • Higher summer temperatures have been connected to an increase in wildfire activity.
  • Earlier spring thaws and later first frosts in autumn could result in greater growth and productivity, but only if temperatures do not exceed upper limits for growth, there is enough water/nutrients, and disease/pathogens are not constraints. However, earlier spring dormancy breaks can be detrimental to fruit production if early bud development increases exposure to late spring frosts.
  • Growing degree-days for crops are shifting, creating opportunities to experiment with new crops, varieties, and markets. Heating or cooling degree-days for livestock and energy use are similarly shifting
  • Changing growth of perennials will lead to different growth times and may lead to pollinator disruption.
  • Changing melting of snow pack may lead to early melting and loss of water before necessary irrigation periods in the western US. 
  • Changing winter temperature and humidity will require adapting grain storage.
  • Warming winters and off-season precipitation will require more diligent soil management to avoid soil loss and organic matter degradation.

Responding to Climate Change

U.S. agriculture and forestry management haves exhibited a remarkable capacity to adapt to a wide diversity of growing conditions amid change. Management practices that can ease the detrimental impacts of seasonal shifts include: calculating workable field days for all agricultural regions and crops to help producers understand the effects on their decision-making process, understanding how crop/livestock production areas may shift to follow temperature and precipitation range changes for optimal growth and yield, understanding how secondary factors will be influenced such as pests, disease, and weed control, and experimenting with new markets and alternative crops.   Longer term planning for longer growing species (i.e. trees) and infrastructure changes (i.e. irrigation, drainage, frost modification) will also be required.

USDA’s Climate Hubs aim to better prepare producers with adaptive responses to climate change by working with partners to deliver science-based, region-specific information and technologies to enable climate-smart decision making.

This page features information from USDA's 2013 report, Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation.