A new El Niño may drive this year's cropping season

Predicting weather, especially long-term, is a dicey deal. But weather prognosticators say some road signs help head them in the right direction.

“Right now, we are in neutral,” says Tony Lupo, University of Missouri climatologist. “The weather-producing conditions in the Pacific Ocean are resting between El Niño and La Niña.”

El Niño, a warming of pacific surface waters off South America's west coast, typically rises and carries moisture that eventually moderates conditions over the North American continent. La Niña is just the opposite. It's a cooling-off of the Pacific in mid-latitudes that typically brings hotter and drier weather to the continental U.S.

The cycle from one El Niño (or La Niña) to the next ranges from three to seven years. The period between usually sees stronger seasonal temperatures and precipitation swings — hotter, drier summers and colder, wetter winters.

“El Niño is coming back into play now,” says Art Douglas, climatologist at Creighton University in Omaha, NE. “But the million-dollar question is: When will we see the effects? There's a lag of three to four months between the start of an El Niño and when we begin to see the effects here in the Midwest.

“Over most of the cropping region, we've got enough moisture to get things started,” he adds. “We may begin to see the moderating effects of El Niño by May or June, with cooler and wetter than normal weather across the Corn Belt through most of summer.”

Larry Acker of 3F Forecasts, Polo, IL, agrees that El Niño is rebuilding, and should affect summer weather patterns for many regions. “In the Corn-Soybean Belt of the central U.S., spring should start off pretty well,” Acker says. “Winds and rainfall will be near normal; temperatures, a bit warmer than normal. March and April should have normal rainfall, but conditions will be drier than normal from late April through mid-June.

“Overall, planting should be done on time, with few weather-related delays,” he adds. “Brief, unusually warm periods from late March through mid-June will raise the seasonal average.

“Above-normal temperatures may hang on through early summer,” Acker continues. “July looks to be slightly cooler than normal, although much of it may be dry, which could affect corn pollination.”

By the third week of July, he looks for rains again, and August should be at or above normal rainfall in most of the Corn Belt.

“The end of the season may be a bit drier and warmer than normal,” he predicts. “The crop should mature in fairly decent shape.”

Acker says the nitrogen fertilizer crunch may result in a major switch of corn acres to soybeans. That would “gum up” his 2001 crop outlook. But, at this point, he's predicting that 72.5 million acres of corn will be harvested for grain. “With this acreage, my computers say the corn crop should total 9.9 billion bushels — very near a record crop,” he says.

A dry July will not be as big a problem for soybeans as for corn. And August rains will fill pods.

“We may grow an all-time record soybean crop,” he says. “If an acreage of 73.5 million acres is harvested, we calculate a crop of 3.25 billion bushels of soybeans. This may be the best year for soybeans since 1994.”

For Acker's most recent forecast, write: 3F Forecasts, 1710 North Summer Hill Road, Polo, IL 61064. Or, reach him by phone at 815-946-3001.