Extreme Weather Resilience

Overall ways to think about making changes

  • “No regrets” decisions: Make changes that result in a wide variety of benefits under multiple scenarios and have little or no risk.
  • Triage: Prioritize changing the most vulnerable aspects of your farm and make changes that are most likely to show results.

Overall good practices for resiliency:

  • Diversify your crops and species for redundancy in case one crop fails. Expand farm production to include a greater number of annual crops, perennial fruits or nuts, timber or other forest products, livestock, or other commodities (may or may not include agroforestry approaches). Use crop types that are different in plant type, structure and lifespan so one catastrophic event is less likely to mean failure for all fields.
  • Improve soil structure and biology: it improves drainage, nutrient retention and water retention.
  • Keep the soil covered yearround with living crops and dead residues. Cover crops actually store more net carbon than transitioning to no-till does.
  • Support mitigation: Many worthwhile adaptations also reduce fuel use or sequester carbon. Win-win for the environment!  Examples: anything that sequesters carbon, reduces nitrogen gases, lowers energy use on farm.
  • Choose varieties and breeds suited for the less predictable weather coming
  • Add additional farming activities or new commodities to diversify farm products and revenue. Consider collaborating with other managers to diversify without increasing your workload.
  • Make decisions that reduce exposure to climate risks – what’s the more resilient option?

Problems & Solutions

Problem: Extreme rain events

Rain events physically remove soil, leach nutrients, and drown low-lying fields.

Solutions

  • Reduce nutrient loss leaching: don’t overapply nutrients and switch to stable sources of nitrogen that slow-release, ones that are linked to organic matter.

Improve water infiltration:

  • Make your soil a sponge, not a tarmac! This will reduce soil loss from erosion and instead allow the water to infiltrate- rapidly.
  • Improve soil structure through cover crops, no till farming, and by increasing organic matter content.
  • Control vehicle traffic to minimize soil compaction by equipment.
  • Keep the soil covered yearround to reduce soil and nutrient loss from erosion:
  • Manage cover crops so they provide cover during the vulnerable times of the year:
    - Interseeding for immediate post-harvest cover
    -Planting green for continuous spring cover
    -Use short term cover crops for 45-60 day windows: buckwheat, cowpea, soybean, millet, mustard, oats.
  • Maintain dead residue on the field.
  • Adopt flood-tolerant crop varieties or varieties more resistant to higher peak flows and runoff velocities.

Farm layout changes:

  • Maintain or improve infrastructure (waterways, lanes, roads, culverts, ponds, waste storage facilities, roofs and covers, roof runoff structures, heavy use areas, etc.) to accommodate more intense rain events.
  • If something’s been damaged by waterflow in the past, expect it to happen again.

-Reshape damaged areas prior to replanting.

-Remove problem areas from agricultural production, or convert them to perennial crops (grass, shrub, or tree crops); pasture/grazing lands, forest cover, or conservation buffers suitable to conveying water.

  • Buy or lease new acreage with good drainage.
  • Match crops to the most appropriate areas on the farm for their water tolerance.

 

Problem: Increased temperatures and crop heat stress

Many common crops of the Northeast are not well suited for the warming trends predicted for this century – especially crops that require long chill periods for optimum growth. Heat stress at the wrong time can stunt growth and lower nitrogen uptake efficiency.

Warmer nighttime temperatures during hot spells also can reduce crop yields. Crops grown in areas with a warmer average nighttime temperature may be less sweet due to increased respiration where the plant taps stored sugar for energy

Solutions

  • Capitalize on the longer growing season with crops that do well in the heat, or double-cropping to offset potential lower production due to heat stress.   
  • Plant cover crops: living and dead cover will reflect heat away from the soil whereas bare soil will absorb it. The cover will also conserve soil moisture.
  • Especially for high-value crops, match the correct crop to the correct localized climate on the farm. Where is it hottest? Coolest?
  • Shift planting dates to avoid heat stress during critical periods of plant development. Consider changing the rates and timing of hay harvesting as well.
  • Shift crops to types that can be grown in a controlled environment, using hoop and high tunnel houses or greenhouses.

 

Problem: Increased temperatures change insect and weed pressure.

Heat stress and new frost patterns change insect and weed pressure.
A longer growing season means more insect generations per season, requiring increased intensity of management. Warmer weather and increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere favor weed growth over crop plants in many cases.

Solutions

  • Use crop varieties and species resistant to pests and diseases.
  • Increase the diversity in your crop rotation as well as the length. Vary the duration of crops by integrating perennials into the rotation. These help break pest and weed cycles.  
  • Scout your fields for weeds and pests more frequently to prevent the escalation of an infestation.
  • Remove or prevent establishment of invasive plants and other competitors following soil disturbance or land clearing.
  • Improve your use of seasonal and short-term weather forecasts. Increases in temperature and humidity may also alter the disease complex for crops.
  • Use integrated pest management (IPM) strategies (prevention, avoidance, monitoring, and suppression) to increase the long-term effectiveness of your pest management program.
  • Improved rapid response plans and regional monitoring efforts will allow for targeted control of new weeds and pests before they become established.
  • Harvest early.
  • Create habitat and refugia for pollinators or other beneficial organisms. One way to do this is to plant a strip of plants that attract beneficials along the edge of a field. Another way is to reinvigorate existing woodland and natural areas to make them more attractive to target species.

Problem: Heat stress affecting livestock and pastures

Heat stress associated with hotter summers will create dangerous and unhealthy conditions for livestock. Heat stress can reduce egg, meat and milk productivity and reproductive capacity. Dairy milk production begins to be affected at 68°F with moderate levels of humidity. Increased nighttime temperatures also can increase livestock stress.  Young stock can be more vulnerable to heat stress. Availability and cost of animal feed will fluctuate as climate affects crops like corn grain and silage, and pasture forage. Cool season pastures could suffer a longer and more intense “summer slump.”

Solutions

Management changes

  • Use grass or fodder banks (resting of pastures for >1 year) to provide forage during dry periods.
  • Integrate livestock into your cropping systems to access additional forage, reduce feed costs, eliminate manure concentration areas, or improve overall farm efficiency. Let them utilize crop residues or cover crops. This can also stimulate soil biology.
  • Alter mix of grazing species. Plant multi-species pasture mixtures including species adapted to warmer or drier climates. Plant warm-season annual forages with good heat tolerance (millet, sorghum, sorghum-sudangrass, cowpea, sunn hemp, etc.) to complement cool season pastures during the summer slump.
  • Increase available shade for pastured animals.
  • Be prepared to alter livestock stocking rates and alter their access to pasture based on forage availability.
  • Adjust animals’ diet (more fat, less protein).
  • Feed animals during the cool parts of the day. Feeding raises body temperature, so feeding in the hottest part of the day increases risk of heat stress associated with digestion. Move cattle to fresh pastures at night.

Stock

  • Switch to or incorporate alternative livestock breeds, class, or species, especially those with a higher heat, drought, and parasite tolerance.
  • Diversify animal products or ages, such as including both cow-calves and yearlings.
  • Alter the timing or placement of feeder animals and subsequent finishing time of these animals to reduce stress associated with heat waves .
  • Alter the timing of animal reproduction to match suitable temperatures and feed availability. This could be on an annual basis or even the time of day you choose to breed animals.
  • Monitor animals to catch early warning signs of stress.

Structural: When it’s time for barn expansion or renovation…

  • House livestock in structures such as open pole barns equipped with evaporative cooling techniques that are not energy intensive or require expensive technology.
  • Enhance energy efficiency in facilities using light-emitting diode (LED) lights or other lighting that produces less heat.
  • Insulate under barn roofs to buffer extreme heat and save on cooling costs.
  • Build new barns with adequate cooling capacity for future heat loads. Design and implement new housing for animal agriculture with consideration for heat waves and extreme rainfall events. Many NRCS designs are appropriate for 25-year storms.
  • Improve climate control in facilities using fans, misters, soakers, and other features.
  • Reduce over-crowding and improve barn ventilation.

Problem: Drought

Longer periods without rainfall can stress plants already burdened by other consequences of heat stress.

Solutions

  • Improve soil structure to maintain a high soil water holding capacity by increasing organic matter and decreasing compaction and soil disturbance.
  • Convert annual crops to perennial crops when possible.
  • Employ alternative methods for crop and cover crop establishment in dry times, such as planting green. Retain cover crop residues during the growing system.
  • Plan backup crops in case of failures, like harvesting cover crops as an emergency forage or for seed or grain.
  • Shift to drought-tolerant and water efficient crop varieties. Sorghum silage is a more drought tolerant forage than corn silage. Plant earlier maturing varieties to avoid late‑season drought stress
  • Drought stress lowers nitrogen use efficiency. Increase the n-use efficiency of your system to compensate (make nitrogen available at the most critical periods in plant development, injecting manure). Account for residual nitrogen left in the soil after dry summers.
  • Drill new wells and seek alternative water sources for vulnerable wells and springs. Increase available water for livestock.
  • Consider alternate methods of harvesting water such as cisterns or catchment ponds.
  • Prepare for the need to irrigate for crops that have never needed it before. Think about increasing your irrigation capacity, particularly for high-value crops.
  • Improve irrigation efficiency. Use new technology for subsurface irrigation, and irrigate with gray or reclaimed water to reduce water use.