If Fred Yoder had doubts that weather affecting his Ohio farm would become more extreme, they vanished in 2011 and 2012, when back-to-back ultra-wet and ultra-dry years tested his farm.
Yoder, who no-tills 1,500 acres near Plain City, 25 miles northwest of Columbus, says the double-whammy weather was an opportunity to ground-truth a system he’s designed to be resilient in the face of extreme conditions.
“We learned a lot from those two seasons,” says Yoder, a past president of the National Corn Growers Association. “Because of no-till, we didn’t have the severe erosion you would expect from the big rains that continued after planting in 2011. It softened the blow from all that rain. And in extremely dry 2012, it helped guard the crop from moisture loss from bare soil.”
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Yoder harvested his second-best corn and soybean crop in 40 years in Ohio’s wettest year ever: 2011. Then, in 2012, drought halved his crop size. But that was still more than twice the size of his 1988 conventionally planted drought-reduced crop, even though the 2012 drought was much worse than the 1988 event.
“We have improved our soil’s organic matter to hold moisture and have lots of plant residue on top to save moisture, too,” he says. “If you can go an extra week or two without moisture, that can be the difference between getting a crop or not. Bottom line, no-till helps to safeguard you from adverse weather, whether it is wet or dry.”
The meandering creek running through his farm is longer-term evidence of a shift toward more extreme weather. The creek flooded severely in 1959, then again in 1997 and 1999, both 100-year floods.
“I’m seeing severe weather events more and more of the time,” he says. “You talk to farmers, and they are leery about climate change, but they agree that weather patterns are changing. We have to do what we can to adapt to these weather changes.”
While no-till is the backbone of Yoder’s adaptation plan, he leverages other strategies and technologies to further weatherproof his operation.
He’s geared up his equipment fleet to accommodate a 10-day planting window. He remembers when his planting window was six weeks. With GPS and autosteer you can plant after dark with confidence.”
Yoder plants the most advanced corn hybrids and soybean varieties available, with genetics designed for a quick start and weather stresses. He sidedresses nitrogen on corn to reduce the chance of losing nitrogen to leaching, while reducing application rates to just 0.75 pound per bushel of expected yield.
Planting cover crops, including a tillage radish-winter pea mix planted following harvest, is one of his latest risk-reduction strategies. The winter cover helps keep soil in place, adds nitrogen and improves biological activity, he says. The long-rooted radishes help move nutrients lower into the soil profile and break up hard pans, he adds.
“We have had a yield bump every place we’ve planted radishes and legumes compared to leaving the soil bare,” he says. “Whenever you enhance the organic matter, you increase your soil health. So you are better able to handle drought and wet weather.”
Report outlines weather challenges
Fred Yoder has plenty of personal experience with roller-coaster weather. But he also has a broader perspective on the impact extreme weather has had on agriculture.
Yoder chaired a committee of farmers, ranchers and other agricultural experts who guided a special project to recommend ways that agriculture and forestry can adapt to extreme weather.
The project, spearheaded by the 25X’25 Alliance, a coalition of agriculture, conservation and business groups, outlined challenges ahead, and how to improve the viability of agriculture and forestry operations despite challenging weather. Alliance partners include the National Corn Growers Association, the American Soybean Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation and dozens of other farm and conservation groups and business, is at www.25x25.org under Projects.