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January-February 2016

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Forecasts for Farmers: Satisfying a Hunger for Reliable Weather Information

Not every storm in our life—is in our forecast.” Although international TV inspirational speaker Joyce Meyer related that observation to personal “storms” in life, meteorologists are propelled by an ongoing passion and dedication to provide accurate stormy weather forecasts. This applies to both long and short time scales, and over large areas and smaller pieces of land.

These forecasts (and others less stormy) also weigh heavily on farmers and ranchers, who carry the unparalleled responsibility of feeding a rapidly growing population. The forecast is a farmer's number one tool that he or she looks at each morning, before ever careening down miles of dirt roads to work his or her fields.

According to a United Nations World Population Prospects report, the agriculture industry will need to feed nine billion people by the year 2050. Officials from Monsanto Seed Company also point to a surging population. “Since 1940, a farmer who fed 19 people, is now feeding 155 people,” according to Jeff Neu, Senior Corn Media Communications Manager with Monsanto.

Raining on the Hay

For starters, a specific weather forecast is critical for baling alfalfa and prairie hay (think feed for cattle, subsequently beef for humans). “When you're putting up hay [cutting and putting it in windrows to be baled], you always watch your forecast because it requires three days of dry weather, so quality isn't compromised. Then, that third night, when I start baling, relative humidity of about 50% is needed to keep leaves from shattering,” explained farmer/rancher Larry Hadachek, of Cuba, Kansas. These conditions typically propel farmers to bale in the dark of the night.

Hadachek, like many farmers, spends as much time checking the forecast on his computer and tractor radio and scrutinizing mercurial cloud movements from a tractor seat five-feet above the ground as he does farming his acres of wheat, soybeans, milo, alfalfa, and corn.

Farmers talk about weather almost as frequently as meteorologists track updated computer models. Forecasts come first, before making decisions about starting the workday. An accurate or missed forecast can make or break a harvest. Most farmers, like Hadachek, forgive a missed forecast, but he still recalls the day when a zero-rain forecast actually drenched a hay field.

“The hot July day had no rain in the five-day forecast,” Hadachek recalled. “So, I cut the prairie hay. By late afternoon, a thunderhead formed in the western sky. Before nightfall, a downpour with one inch of wind-driven rain soaked the windrows and scattered the hay. After the hay dried-out, we re-raked the 20 acres, put it in windrows again, and baled it. Since the hay was scattered, we couldn't pick it all up.” He explained further that, “If it rains while the hay is in windrows, it lowers the quality, and results in lost yield.”

Also, if it rains excessively when wheat is mature, it bleaches the kernels and lowers the test-weight, cutting into farmers' profit. “For wheat, you need under 13% moisture, and 60 pounds per bushel or greater test weight, otherwise they dock you [discount your product at the grain elevator, subtracting money per bushel from the posted price],” said Tom Lesovsky, a fifth-generation farmer in Cuba, Kansas.

Accurate Forecasts Crucial for Harvesting

Accurate weather reporting enables Washington state apple growers to be proactive during the critical spring growing season when buds are susceptible to frost damage.

“As growers of fresh market apples, freeze prevention helps ensure an ample supply of quality apples. Last year, wildfires affected air quality, and the forecast dictated when our crews could work safely in the orchards,” said Erin Smith, Communications Manager of Rainier Fruit Company, Selah, Washington.

Long-term forecasting also plays a role for apple growers. “We use that information to enhance or delay fruit harvest for better quality,” said Randy Steensma, Manager of the Honey Bear Tree Fruit Company in Wenatchee, Washington.

In Georgia, forecasts assist peach and pecan farmers in calculating chilling units or hours of dormancy during the period from mid-November through mid-February. “These hours below 45 degrees are crucial to the following year's formation of leaf and fruit buds on trees,” explained Duke Lane Jr., President of Lane Southern Orchards in Fort Valley, Georgia. “We don't prune trees completely since a late freeze can damage the little peaches. After the threat of a freeze has passed, we go back and complete the job of pruning. Also, our peach and pecan summer spray program is determined by daily and weekly weather reports, to be sure we don't have rains coming right behind us to wash our materials off the fruit or nuts.”

What Is the Best Forecasting Tool for Agriculture?

Few forecasts offer a 100% guarantee that convective weather will actually occur, even though meteorologists are making constant strides in forecast accuracy.

“I empathize with farmers who either miss out on convective rains or receive too much when the forecast called for a 30% chance. Pinpointing where convection will form and move, especially beyond six to eight hours, can be a challenge,” said Chad Omitt, Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the NWS in Topeka, Kansas. “In Spring 2015, thunderstorms dumped over five inches of rain five to 10 miles northwest of Wichita, while parts of the city received less than half an inch,” observed Omitt.

Similarly, Greg Carbin, who forecasts and studies severe weather outbreaks across the entire United States from the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, explained, that the science of meteorology is not about being deterministic. “You have to discuss forecasts and outcomes in terms of probabilities. A 30% rain forecast means seven out of 10 times it won't rain. A 20% chance is a low confidence forecast. If I've calibrated accurately, eight out of 10 times, it will not rain,” Carbin continued.

At AccuWeather, Mike Smith noted that meteorologists generally like to use probabilities, but the public does not. “I would get rid of probabilities, but use, ‘rain likely’ or ‘rain will occur …’” said Smith, who was previously a TV meteorologist in Wichita, Kansas, and is now Senior Vice President of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions.

“We put so much appropriate emphasis on getting the extreme events right—the tornado, the hurricane—that people who say our three-, four-, and five-day (non-severe) forecasts aren't as useful as they would like, have a point,” Smith explained. He wrote a book in 2010 called, Warnings; The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather, referring to the thousands of lives saved by meteorologists yearly.

Smith recommended the “Minutecast,” a proprietary algorithm predicting two-hour precipitation. Smith's approach to best determine a dry three-day period? “Great question,” responded Smith. “I would go to AccuWeather and NWS both. If rain chances are low on both, then farmers should be good to go.”

Agriculture weather forecasts were predominantly available through the NWS until 1996, when they were transferred to the private sector. “During the Clinton administration, there was a push for privatization of value-added NWS products, and NWS's Ag Weather Service Centers were closed,” said Brad Rippey, U.S. Department of Agriculture Meteorologist and Office of the Chief Economist, World Agricultural Outlook Board in Washington, D.C.

According to Christopher Vaccaro, NWS spokesman, Silver Spring, Maryland, NWS forecast products still bring value to the agriculture community and many other economic sectors. These include the weekly Drought Monitor; monthly and seasonal precipitation and temperature outlooks; and watches, warnings, and advisories.

Significant variances between geographically close farm locations, along with needs for more accurate weather data, led DTN/The Progressive Farmer to develop a network of 3,500 “Ag Weather Stations.” “Through a tablet, or a computer, growers and others receive real-time weather data on their Ag Weather Station. The NOAA ensemble computer models are combined with our meteorologists' analysis. We gear the Ag Weather Station to farmers and ranchers and others interested in trading in markets such as futures and commodities,” said Matt Bradford, DTN Vice President of Agriculture.

Farmer Mark Nowak of Wells, Minnesota, purchased the Ag Weather Station at the Minnesota Farmfest two years ago. Nowak likes the station's 15-day forecast, especially during harvesting and planting times. He also likes the 72-hour precipitation pattern showing wind speeds in animation, with “start and end” estimates for precipitation.

“It also calculates growing degree units, and helped me decide when to start harvesting corn and when to anticipate maturity. It costs $55 a month, and [with the technology] I don't have to run up to the farm,” said Nowak, who farms corn and beans. He also operates an agricultural consulting business providing cash flow plans, marketing strategies, and long-term interest rates.

The ongoing drive to learn from weather scenarios that veer off-course propels meteorologists to attend meteorology conferences to learn about anomaly cases. Jay Prater, on-air certified broadcast meteorologist at KAKE-TV in Wichita, Kansas, acknowledges that nuances can quash any forecast. “If I was a farmer, I'd never hesitate to pick up the phone and talk to a meteorologist. Even a ‘zero chance’ outlook can bust from small (upper level) short-waves that aren't always well timed by the models,” said Prater, noting that blown forecasts in Kansas have been known to occur under a typically tranquil northwest flow regime. Farmers call Prater, particularly during spring rangeland burning season, for tailored forecasts.

“I'm actually disappointed that more farmers and ranchers aren't accessing site-specific forecasts with enormous content value available through America's weather industry,” noted Steve Root, President of the American Weather and Climate Industry Association, Edmond, Oklahoma. “Many companies provide value-added risk-weighted services, using the ensemble model and third party databases, calibrated and updated hourly,” advised Root. “While it may not be in a farmer's nature to pay for a weather forecast, the cost of a customized forecast with tailored consulting is more than offset by the risk of damaged crops and impacted livestock.”

Baron Weather in Huntsville, Alabama, is developing agriculture forecasting services. “We're developing high resolution models at the scale of individual farms, providing data and decision-making tools for farmers,” said Bob Baron, CEO and Founder of the company. Baron noted that they plan to take meteorological and land surface modeling information in real time and translate these into decision-making information.

Devastating Droughts

Then, there's the dreaded drought. The devastation for California farmers stemming from the multi-year drought is well-known, but drought can also be a huge issue for plains states farmers. Consider the drought that affected a 300-head cow/calf operation in Blue Hill, Nebraska, from 2012–2013. Bar V Ranch's artificial insemination reproduction program lost pastures during those dry years. “Sadly, so many people had to sell off herds, but what saved our cattle and program was running cattle under an irrigation pivot, utilizing a rotational grazing system,” said Beth Landau, who runs Bar V Ranch with her fiancé Dave Van Boening.

Freezes on the East Coast

On the opposite end of the spectrum, unexpected freezes spell trouble for farmers across the country. In the prominent maple syrup producing state of Vermont, maple syrup harvesting is temperature-dependent from February through April. “Forecasting these conditions with above-freezing days and below freezing nights can be challenging due to snow cover, frost depth, wind direction, and sunshine,” said Roger R. Hill, forecaster for Weathering Heights Consulting and Thunder Basin Maple in Underhill, Vermont.

In Florida's citrus country, although a freeze occurs at 32°F, a hard freeze at 28°F is the point when cold damage to trees and fruit begins. “That's why, when the NWS quit offering the Fruit Frost Forecast and stopped maintaining weather stations [similar to a mesonet] in Florida, retired extension agent John Jackson helped reorganize our network,” explained Peter Spyke, a third-generation citrus farmer and co-owner of Spyke's Grove in Davie, Florida. “Freezes caused the loss of a quarter of a million acres of citrus in Florida in the 1980s. We also lost an orange grove to a freeze in 2010.” Since cold damage is always a risk, spraying micro-sprinkler water encases fruit in ice and keeps the fruit at 32°F.

Spyke, who received a bachelor of science degree in Citrus Management at University of Florida, and a master's degree in Fruits, Nuts and Beverage Crops, attributes success of area orange groves to the university-operated Florida Automated Weather Network, and programs developed by Dr. Kelley Morgan at the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center (SWFREC) in Immokalee, Florida, a university support facility. SWFREC broke ground in May 2015 on a 7,000-square-foot expansion after receiving $2 million from the Florida Legislature for new labs and faculty.

“These new programs focus on citrus and vegetable production problems, citrus greening disease, citrus fruit drop, and soil microbes,” commented Calvin Arnold, PhD, Director of SWFREC.

Western Crops

On the opposite U.S. coast, rain is vital for California wine grapes, which are grown in 48 of the state's 58 counties. There are 110 wine grape varieties. Also, California recently modified heat illness prevention regulations regarding the availability of shade and water for agricultural workers.

“Shade must now be present when the temperature exceeds 80°F, instead of the original 85°F requirement. Heat is also a factor at grape harvest time, so harvesting is often done at night. For frost and freeze protection, wine grape growers in northern California (particularly the Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino county regions) spray vines with water from rivers and streams and groundwater,” said Ron Lopp, now retired Communications Manager for the California Association of Winegrape Growers, Sacramento, California “With streams and rivers low from drought, the state created regulations for diverting water,” observed Lopp. “Also, rain combined with warm temperatures can cause vines to develop powdery mildew, so farmers apply a chemical treatment on their crops. When wine grape growers get together at any time, weather is usually a topic of conversation, no matter what time of year.”

Miles Muzio, Chief Meteorologist at KBAK-TV in Bakersfield, California, said, “Squeezing the efficiency out of existing technology is now possible with tools like HRRR 3-Km, the High Resolution Rapid Refresh computer model. There's no other forecast model that initializes 3-D radar data with 3-Km resolution and updates every hour, forecasting 15 hours into the future at 15-minute intervals.”

Such tools are now the bread and butter of farmers whose livelihoods depend on increased efficiency and accuracy of forecasts. It's all about wind and rain, either too much or a lack of, and ideal growing temperatures.

As farmer Tom Lesovsky put it, “Weather is nearly everything in the day of a farmer.”

AMY GARDNER HADACHEK, who has enjoyed being a TV Meteorologist in Dallas, Texas, Oklahoma City, and at the CNN-TV Network, now writes frequently for a regional agriculture publication. Amy is the director of a historical museum in Republic County, Kansas. Amy and her husband own a diversified crop and livestock farm in Kansas.

H. MICHAEL MOGIL is a Certified Consulting Meteorologist and frequent contributor to Weatherwise magazine. He lives in Naples, Florida.       

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