U.S. Produces Consistent U.S. Corn Crops Despite El Nino, La Nina Factors

History has shown that weather can and will affect the growth, harvest and marketing of grain crops. Yet, investments in technology and excellent management skills allow farmers in the United States to mitigate the impact of weather and remain the most resilient suppliers of coarse grains to global markets.

Currently, the weather cycles in effect around the world are repeating history in an El Nino cycle, leading to a potential La Nina event.

In simple weather terms, an El Nino is a warm weather event, or a warming of the equatorial Pacific, and a La Nina is the polar opposite - a cooling of the equatorial Pacific.

The Climate Prediction Center (CPC), part of the National Weather Service, previously defined an El Nino event as three consecutive three-month periods in which deviations were at least 0.5°C above normal.  However, CPC recently changed these criteria to five consecutive three-month periods of deviations of 0.5°C or greater, reducing the number of very weak El Nino events measured. With the new criteria, the number of La Nina events immediately following an El Nino since 1950 dropped to 10.

“This past summer, we saw warmer than normal temperatures across the U.S., and the CPC recorded that there have been only three instances since 1950 when temperature departures have been this large during April to June,” says Al Dutcher, Nebraska Extension state climatologist who specializes in climate data analysis, crop/weather relationships and related subjects.

If the El Nino event remains active heading into this upcoming summer, drier than normal conditions will likely prevail across a sizeable portion of the eastern Corn Belt, according to Dutcher. If the El Nino begins its switch to La Nina conditions, then there is a tendency for dry conditions to develop across the Midwest during the second half of the growing season, with drier than normal conditions prevailing through the fall and winter months. 

“Looking at the most current forecasts, El Nino looks to have reached its peak and is now starting to weaken, going back to near neutral conditions into the late spring/early summer period,” Dutcher said. “We can see significant late winter and early spring precipitation events here in the Central Plains.”

Brian Fuchs, associate geoscientist/climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center, said that the Eastern Corn Belt is showing dryer signals but soil moisture levels have stayed plentiful.

“A drier spring would not hurt grain areas as it would allow for farmers to get the crop in the ground,” he said. “If there is a transition to La Nina, it would probably not start until the latter part of 2016 and extend into 2017. For the 2016 U.S. grains crop, the next season will still likely be dominated by El Nino conditions rather than La Nina.”

The El Nino has also been affecting the Southern Hemisphere, currently in the crop growing season.

“El Nino is causing a drought situation in Brazil affecting their cattle and crops,” Fuchs said. “Brazil has a dry signal now, which is ongoing and could affect grain markets and trade.”

U.S. farmers have a recent example of how dramatically weather can affect grain markets: the 2012 drought.

“Weather is a factor in every grain market, every year. During and well after the 2012 drought, USGC had a consistent conversation with international buyers on crop status, drought monitor updates and more,” says Tom Sleight, U.S. Grains Council (USGC) president and CEO. 

“We ended up having the eighth largest corn crop in U.S. history, which reassured customers of the diversity, depth and resilience of U.S. coarse grain production.”  

Sleight said that each year is a new opportunity to bring information to global buyers on the status of U.S. crop conditions, including weather during planting, the critical pollination period, the growing season in general and harvest. All of these events garner global attention because they play a large role in determining U.S. crop quality and quantity.

Farmer and Nebraska Corn Board Director Tim Scheer said that while weather is always on the farmer’s mind, he has seen a heightened interest in the weather after the recent drought of 2012.

“I am blessed with irrigation in my area, yet even though 70 percent of Nebraska’s corn crop is irrigated, there were concerns in 2012 because of water restrictions,” Scheer said.

Scheer said that weather even far away from his farm can affect how he runs his business. For instance, in the 2015 growing season, many parts of the U.S. had too much rainfall, which resulted in late plantings. Scheer’s crops were already planted, but the news did change his marketing decisions.

He said he has had the opportunity to travel overseas to visit with end users of U.S. grain, as well as meet with trade teams that have come to the States.

“The conversations I’ve had with our grain customers is that we have the same concerns over the quality and quantity of the grain,” Scheer said. “And something that affects both quality and quantity is the weather.”