It’s too early to make a hard-and-fast call, but U.S. hay producers may be in for yet another growing season of wild weather swings, predicts Elwynn Taylor, climatologist with Iowa State University Extension.
Water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, near the equator and along the west coast of South America, have cooled in recent months. That indicates that a La Niña weather pattern could dominate continental U.S. weather this summer.
“There are no guarantees, but for right now it looks like we are drifting toward a La Niña,” says Taylor. “We should have a better idea of which way things are heading by the end of this month.”
La Niñas tend to produce volatile weather. Severe springtime flooding along the Missouri River and the Texas drought in 2011, the 2012 eastern Cornbelt drought and the current western U.S. drought were related to a series of strong La Niña years. Prior to that, El Niño, the counterweight to La Niña, dominated between 2004 and 2009. El Niño events are generally linked to more stable weather.
For Midwestern hay growers, the impact of a La Niña is usually negative overall. “One cutting might be great, but the next two could be failures or vice-versa,” Taylor says.
La Niñas generally put high pressure and low pressure in the opposite order of what’s expected. “So in the Cornbelt, where June and July are traditionally the wettest months, you could end up going into a drought,” Taylor notes.
In parts of the Far West, where high pressure usually dominates during the growing season, a La Niña would likely bring more frequent summer rains. “So there’s more of a chance your irrigated alfalfa crop would get rained on before it’s baled.”
Many forecasters believe that an El Niño could take hold in August or September, Taylor notes. “In the Midwest, it would come too late to help out row crops for this year. But it would be a good thing for late-season forage crops and alfalfa. It would be cooler, and there would be ample moisture.”
A strong El Niño would also likely bring additional late-fall and winter precipitation to California, other Western states and Southern states currently battling drought. It could also lead to a milder winter in the northern U.S. and fewer hurricanes in the Atlantic region.