With temperatures already starting to drop — and some areas of the country already seeing snow — winter is well on its way.
For farmers, this can be a bittersweet time. It’s a brief period of quiet post-harvest. But there are big questions of what’s on the horizon.
Winter weather can be a mixed bag, especially in heavy agricultural regions like the Corn Belt or other areas of the Midwest.
A harsh winter could pose some dangers that growers will need to prepare for. But certain weather conditions could also create positive opportunities for farmers.
Winter weather impact on soil health
Soil health depends on several factors, including temperature. According to the USDA, the ideal range for nitrification and plant growth, for example, is between 65 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit. When soil can stay at an optimal temperature, it supports seed germination, plant growth and the availability of nutrients. By planting, it’s helpful if frigid temperatures have subsided so farmers can have a solid window to get seeds in the ground.
Fluctuating temperatures could have an impact on the upcoming crop year too. When the top layers of soil go through multiple freezes and thaws, this can loosen up the soil and even cause runoff. Cover crops can help mitigate this threat.
Cold weather can also bring important benefits to farmers’ fields. Snowfall, for example, can often be helpful to farmers. A layer of snow on top of soils can act as insulation from otherwise freezing temperatures in the air above ground. Snow can even deliver its own nutrients, including nitrogen and sulfur. As spring weather arrives, snowmelt can also provide helpful moisture.
However, too much moisture can cause its own problems. Pre-plant tillage can be a challenge if soils are too wet and can impact seed imbibition or root development down the road.
How winter weather sets up the next growing season
What the weather is like over the winter months is not the only factor that will impact planting in the spring, or even yields further down the road. But this time period can still have an impact.
Depending on how late winter conditions last (February vs April, for example), cold temperatures can impact corn and soybean planting.
At planting time, temperatures need to rise in order to maximize yield potential. There is a risk of imbibitional chilling in seeds if soil temperatures are below 50 degrees Fahrenheit when the seed imbibes.
For corn specifically, damage could occur to the growing plant if temperatures don’t warm up. For example, if soil temperatures are between 28 and 32 degrees Fahrenheit, there could be some frost damage. Meanwhile, soil temperatures below that range could kill a young corn plant altogether.
What are the winter weather predictions for 2024?
For the first time since 2019, El Niño will impact winter weather. The cyclical weather pattern involves warmer waters in the Pacific pushing the jet stream south and east, which can cause dryer conditions in the northern part of the U.S. and wetter conditions further south.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts there will be wetter than average conditions in the southern Plains, Southeast, some portions of the West, Gulf Coast and lower mid-Atlantic. However, it expects dryer conditions in the northern Rockies and High Plains.
According to the 2024 Farmer’s Almanac, the Heartland region (Iowa, eastern Nebraska, eastern Kansas, northern Missouri, western Illinois and the southwest corner of Wisconsin) will see above-average precipitation and snowfall. They also predict temperatures to be colder than usual, peaking in early and late January and early February.
The Farmer’s Almanac also expects higher than usual precipitation/snowfall and lower than usual temperatures in the High Plains for 2024 (mostly western North Dakota, western South Dakota, western Nebraska, western Kansas, eastern Montana, eastern Wyoming, eastern Colorado, and northern corners of New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma).
Stay prepared, no matter the conditions
No matter what this year’s winter weather brings, it’s important to have contingency plans in place, plant the appropriate seed varieties for your region and seek support if conditions negatively impact fields. Reach out to your trusted AgriGold agronomist for questions about effectively dealing with winter weather conditions.