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December 1, 2023
At most local diners in the region, talk about the weather is common among the smells of warm pastry and fresh-brewed coffee. And this winter, the El Niño system will likely be part of farmers’ ongoing conversations.
“It’s no big surprise that we have a high chance of El Niño affecting our winter season,” says Laura Edwards, South Dakota State University Extension climatologist. “It will be a very strong event this year, and there is over a 50% chance of it being almost historic strength.”
After back-to-back La Niña seasons, this will be the first El Niño seen in South Dakota in the past five years. During El Niño, the Pacific jet stream moves south of its neutral position, causing dryer and warmer temperatures in the northern U.S., including the Dakotas.
“Historically, we know that El Niño means warmer than average through our region,” Edwards says. “These are all probabilities and chances based on past events, so we can’t ever say 100% what will happen.”
While El Niño might mean a reprieve from the bone-chilling cold that hits the Northern Plains, Edwards says it can’t be relied on to predict precipitation. “Up until about 15 years ago, we were seeing a reduction in snowfall during El Niño years, since the warmer temperatures gave us less snow or ice events.” That has all changed in recent years.
“If we include the last few El Niño years, we’ve actually seen increases of snowfall,” she explains. “When the timing is right, we will still get those snow events and colder periods in the winter.”
Edwards says it’s likely Canadian weather caused some of the heavy snowfall in 2022-23 in North Dakota. “The Alberta clipper systems that came down caught more of North Dakota than it did South Dakota,” she says.
The middle part of the country is generally drier, but some snow systems still reach into the region, she adds. “The thing we can say about El Niño snowstorms in this region is that precipitation from the Northern Rockies and into Montana might filter into the western Dakotas,” she says.
A late-April blizzard plagued ranchers trying to get through calving in 2022. They worked tirelessly to clear snow, bring pairs into barns and keep newborn calves alive. For situations like this, SDSU Extension offers the Mesonet Livestock Stress Tool on its website to help producers gauge potential risks for animals. This tool can give producers a few extra days to put a plan in place.
“We’ve got a couple days ahead to see what the forecast is, whether for windchill or heat index in the summer,” Edwards says. “The tool also contains a comprehensive cattle index to look at anticipated stress for either newborn or adult livestock.”
Winter precipitation and temperatures also affect spring activities. “Winter is our driest season of the year, the difference between above- or below-average precipitation can often be a few snowstorms,” she says. “With warmer-than-average temperatures, we often don’t see soil freeze as deep, so we could see earlier-than-normal starts to spring planting.”
Editor, Dakota Farmer, Farm Progress
Sarah McNaughton of Bismarck, N.D., has been editor of Dakota Farmer since 2021. Before working at Farm Progress, she was an NDSU 4-H Extension agent in Cass County, N.D. Prior to that, she was a farm and ranch reporter at KFGO Radio in Fargo.
McNaughton is a graduate of North Dakota State University, with a bachelor’s degree in ag communications and a master’s in Extension education and youth development.
She is involved in agriculture in both her professional and personal life, as a member of North Dakota Agri-Women, Agriculture Communicators Network Sigma Alpha Professional Agriculture Sorority Alumni and Professional Women in Agri-business. As a life-long 4-H’er, she is a regular volunteer for North Dakota 4-H programs and events.
In her free time, she is an avid backpacker and hiker, and can be found most summer weekends at rodeos around the Midwest.
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