The Great Lakes Regional Office of the National Climate Prediction Center confirms that a strong El Nino event is underway. Their best prediction is that it will bring a milder winter with warmer than average temperatures and less than normal precipitation across much of the Great Lakes, extending at least down into the northern two-thirds of Indiana.
That sounds positive, but not all that glitters is gold. For example, weather experts note that while mild winter weather should benefit wheat, cover crops, forages and fruits, including apples and grapes, it's not a done deal.
Milder temperatures likely means less snow cover. Snow protects these crops when there is a cold outbreak. There is no guarantee that even if the trend is correct, and it's warmer than normal and drier than normal, there won't be at least one outbreak of colder weather or even snow sometime during the winter. For most of these crops, timing may be everything. The stage they are in when such an outbreak occurs, and whether there is snow cover or not may make a huge difference.
The bottom line is that there is no "free lunch" – no guarantee that a mild winter will help all things agricultural.
Livestock producers should benefit because animals may not need as much hay and may not stress as much since there should be fewer days of very cold weather.
However, El Nino could also bring negative impacts to other growing conditions around the world. That could result in shorter crop supplies worldwide, which could increase commodity prices overall for crops such as wheat, corn and soybeans. It would be beneficial for grain producers, but would mean higher feed costs for livestock producers.
To say there's a lot riding on these weather forecasts is an understatement. And besides El Nino, there are other weather forcing functions that contribute to winter conditions. Ignoring them could lead to incorrectly gauging the forecast.