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Ohio’s ever-changing climate, and its impact on farmers

By Zach Parrott, OCJ field reporter

Many farmers in the state have been struggling with incredibly wet conditions over the past couple of years driven by a changing climate. Both crop and livestock operations are having to make changes to adapt accordingly.

Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences atmospheric scientist Aaron Wilson pointed out that over the past 60 years, moisture levels in Ohio have been on the rise. The increased moisture in the atmosphere has caused Ohio’s temperatures to also change. Ohio’s temperature has increased roughly 2 degrees overall. From 1986 to 2016, summers in Ohio have become increasingly cooler and the winters are warmer. These changes have significant impacts on the state’s ag sector, resulting in rising human and livestock stress levels, pollination decreases, lower productivity and quality, increased weed pressure, increase in disease, and a higher potential risk of crop failure.

“When you have more moisture in the atmosphere it does three things,” Wilson said. “During the day it limits your heating — you’re likely to build clouds and temperatures stay down. At night it doesn’t allow the surface to cool. The energy that is radiated from the surface is absorbed from the water vapor and your atmosphere stays warmer. Finally, if you get more moisture in the atmosphere anytime a front or some type of disturbance moves through, it brings out heavy rainfall.”

Precipitation in Ohio is up 10% to 15% in most areas. These precipitation trends are normally most active during non crop production seasons like spring and fall. From April to June, the frequency of precipitation is up 3% to 11%. In the 2018 crop season, Wilson said Ohio had a “normal spring.” However, the 2018 summer was the second wettest in Ohio history and the fall was the third wettest.

The intensity of rain events is also on the rise. Across Ohio, downpours greater than 1.5 inches have nearly doubled since 1950. They’re now occurring four to five times per year, on average.

“Since about the mid-1990s we see a greater frequency of 2 inches or more rainfall events as well,” Wilson said.

Wilson said Ohio’s temperature is predicted to reach 90 degrees or higher between 20 and 40 days this year and there will be 30 to 40 fewer days where nights drop below freezing. Ohio’s precipitation is also predicted to increase over 2 inches this year.

The excess rain this spring has left record setting numbers of prevented planting acres around Ohio. Hay supplies to feed livestock are also severely low in the state and across the Midwest because rain has delayed or prevented hay from being cut and excess moisture killed alfalfa stands.

The Ohio wheat crop has also been negatively impacted. The soggy weather left poor stands and drowned-out holes in fields, according to Cheryl Turner, Ohio state statistician, U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service Ohio Field Office.

“Wheat conditions going into harvest are much worse than last year,” she said.

Ohio’s farms also have to manage significant water flows on the surface of fields and underground. Tile management structures, ditch modification, buffer strips and French drains are some of the ways water is being managed in farm fields.

“There are a lot of possible solutions for dealing with increasing rainfall,” Wilson said. “There’s no one perfect solution for all farms.”

The changes are not just confined to Ohio. May 2018 to April 2019 was the wettest year on record nationwide, according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information. An average of 36.20 inches of precipitation fell nationwide, which was 6.25 inches above the mean, the agency said.

“The idea is to get people to start thinking about building resilience to the changes we see,” Wilson said.

The summer outlook from the Climate Prediction Center of the National Weather Service suggests the wetter-than-normal weather will continue across much of the country, the USDA said.

“Farmers are having to combat all of this,” Wilson said.

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