If the weather in your part of cropping country seemed erratic in 2005, brace yourself for more of the same.

“For one thing, storms will be more scattered than usual in 2006,” says Larry Acker of 3F Forecasts, Polo, IL. “We're still in a major storm cycle that began in 1999; general storms that cover large areas of the country won't be very common.”

“The atmosphere is pretty chaotic,” agrees Pat Guinan, University of Missouri atmospheric scientist. “That makes it much harder to predict spring and summer weather with any degree of certainty.”

In addition, La Niña has officially returned, according to the national Climate Prediction Center's (CPC) report in February. La Niña refers to the periodic cooling of water in the equatorial Pacific, which can strongly influence weather patterns over North America — indeed, around the globe. CPC expects this La Niña event to stick around at least into late spring and possibly through most of summer.

“This pattern favors continued drought in the South and Southwest, from Arizona to Arkansas and Louisiana,” notes Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, who adds that La Niña may usher in above-normal precipitation in the Northwest and across the Tennessee Valley.

“We're going into the 2006 growing season with much of the Corn Belt (Illinois, Iowa and much of Missouri) drier than normal,” says Acker. “With La Niña gaining strength, the season may be a real challenge for many corn growers.

“Planting season will begin cooler than normal and relatively cool weather will last until early July,” Acker continues. “Winds will be fairly quiet until about May 5, and then increase to windier than normal until August 11 or 12. Rainfall will be erratic through March and early April, but will be below normal from April 21 through June 25, when we get widely scattered rains.

“If growers plant 81 million acres of corn, as expected, we still should make a corn crop of about 10.8 billion bushels, figuring in dry subsoil in parts of the Corn Belt and applying somewhat less nitrogen,” he estimates.

Main-crop soybeans face the same weather challenges as corn, but the crop should get planted in good shape, especially for growers who can finish planting by late May.

“If scattered rains come when they are needed, 2006 could be a very good year for beans,” says Acker. “Heat shouldn't be a big problem if soybeans get enough water. Moisture should be less of a limiting factor in the Delta and parts of the southern U.S.

“However, disease cycles are favorable for Asian soybean rust, which will boost the cost of growing beans significantly,” he adds. “When and if rust is found — especially in new areas — look for bean prices to rally on the Chicago Board of Trade.

“And we expect some corn acres to switch to soybeans due to higher expenses for raising corn, and for continuous soybeans to take a yield hit. Still, we expect about 72 million acres to go to beans; up a half-million acres or so from last year's crop,” Acker sums up. “That should produce a crop of 3.11 billion bushels.”

Cotton is another story. Prices have rallied some since cotton hit bottom in August 2005. Markets and growing-season weather are up in the air as growers get ready to plant the 2006 crop.

“Going into planting season, soil moisture is below normal in many areas of cotton country, so dry soils may well be a major problem,” says Acker. “We'll see rains from May 20 to June 3 and winds will be quiet until early May.

“Temperatures should average cooler than normal,” he adds. “If cotton gets planted in a timely fashion, the crop should get off to a decent start.”

But then comes summer. Temperatures will be cooler than normal across the Cotton Belt, with only brief warm-ups for the entire season.

“There aren't many general storms in sight,” says Acker. “Cotton can handle dry weather, but the dry summer will cut production at least a little. Our computer predicts about 14 million acres to be planted to cotton; a few more acres than the 13.7 million planted in 2005. We expect a crop of 20.9 million bales, a little below the 23.7 million bales in 2005.”

In summary, 2006 will be a so-so crop year; better or worse than average, depending on when those scattered rainstorms hit. Two big unknowns: How much corn growers may cut back on expensive crop inputs — especially nitrogen — and whether, when and where Asian soybean rust hits.

If you'd like to check intermediate-range weather forecasts, log on to the Climate Prediction Center at www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov.

Larry Acker produces a monthly newsletter that flags breaking events in weather, crop and market conditions. You can contact him at 3F Forecasts, 1710 North Summer Hill Road, Polo, IL 61604. You can also call him at 815-946-3001 or e-mail Lacker@essex1.com.