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Climate change and its effect on agriculture

Posted Thursday, October 18, 2012, at 9:57 AM

When the documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, hit the theater in 2006 it started a discussion about climate change.

Today, perception of climate change tends to leave people concerned, dismissive or uninformed. Some farmers are skeptical that climate change is real, others are doubtful it will affect agriculture, and some don't even want to bring it up fearing it might generate another concern about the environmental impact of farming.

One concern about climate change is that it is so political. However there is evidence that environmental shifts are already subtly affecting crop yields, increasing risks and altering farm management practices. Producers should prepare to manage any changes of any type that have a reasonable chance of affecting them. Producers need to focus on measurable occurrences and outcomes, such as warmer temperatures and resulting changes in insect populations or changing weather patterns as a result of increased water vapor.

Earlier planting dates are one example of change. According to an Iowa State University Study from 1981 to 2005, The Midwest has seen its average corn planting date advance by 0.40 days per year and the average soybean planting date advance by 0.49 days per year. This is a result of changes in the climate, newer hybrids and varieties and new methods to manage early season insects and diseases.

Further improvements in agronomic traits and management options will occur. This will be the result of an increased understanding of a plants biology and the use of genomic sequencing and bioinformatics to understand plant biology.

Not only does earlier planting give crops an earlier start but it also gives weeds and insects an earlier start. Insects are cold-blooded animals and their body temperature is approximately the same as their environment.

The temperature affects their distribution, development, survival and reproduction. An example from 2012, for central Missouri, was the earlier than expected emergence of Japanese beetles.

Producers could see an increased likelihood of more outbreaks from a wider variety of insects and pathogens, either due to over wintering in new geographies or by migrating from a shorter distance. Another problem could be invasive plant species such as Kudzu. Presently, Kudzu's geographic location and movement is limited by low winter temperatures. Kudzu is now found in a few localized areas in central Missouri. Warmer temperatures may allow it to be more invasive than it is now in this area and allow it to move further north as well as develop more rapidly.

The bottom line to the changes in climate is that it can be managed. The changes could offer an opportunity to increase production.

Many of the actions that address climate change are simply good management practices. Some of the areas to consider would be improved irrigation and drainage systems, efficient use of nitrogen fertilizer and manure, greater farm energy efficiency, cover cropping to add organic matter to the soil, and development of local markets to reduce packaging, transportation and storage, which all use energy and create greenhouse gases.

Most agree that changes in climate are occurring irregardless of what the cause is. Good farming practices and improvements in hybrids and varieties will provide tools to manage these changes.

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As our local University of Missouri Agronomy Extension Specialist, Crook has been writing a column for the print edition Agriculture page for the past three years and we will now be sharing it on our web version. Crook has a bachelor and masters degree in agronomy from University of Missouri and received his doctorate in Agronomy from Kansas State University. He was in soybean variety development research for 22 years for various seed companies and has been Saline County's agronomy specialist for 10 years.
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