The weather is different these days than when Eric Odberg was a kid.
There’s less snow, wetter springs and hotter, drier summers, he says.
“We have more extremes,” the 50-year-old Genesee, Idaho, farmer said. “It seems like we get stuck in a weather pattern for an extended period of time, and it takes a long time to get out of it, and then shift into another extreme.”
Odberg is working with University of Idaho researchers to “weather-proof” his farm as part of the Landscapes in Transition project. They are studying cover crops and rotations of winter peas on 3.5 acres Odberg owns outside Genesee. It’s the latest step scientists and farmers are taking to learn what climate change means for growers — and how they can adjust.
Study in ‘bigness’
The Landscapes in Transition study began in 2017 and follows on the heels of a $20 million, six-year regional study aimed at helping farmers remain profitable in the face of a changing climate. That study was known as Regional Approaches to Climate Change, or REACCH.
REACCH began in 2011 and included 29 principal investigators, 45 graduate students, eight postdoctoral researchers and 82 undergraduate students from UI, Oregon State University, Washington State University and the USDA Agricultural Research Service.
“It was big,” Sanford Eigenbrode, UI entomology professor and project lead for REACCH, said of the original study. “There had never been projects of that size funded by USDA (National Institute of Food and Agriculture) prior to it and it looks like there won’t be any in the near future, either.”
As part of that “bigness,” he said, researchers considered agronomic questions, how to collaborate in answering them and how to train students and faculty to answer them, he said.
Had REACCH not been funded, Eigenbrode believes both growers and researchers would have a lot less understanding of the climate.
The biggest takeaway from the original study was that average crop yields would continue to increase for several decades in the midst of additional carbon dioxide fertilization and a general warming trend, he said.
“On the other hand, along with warming comes increased probability of certain kinds of stress, like a thermal stress early in the crop that can injure yield,” Eigenbrode said. “Even if average yields go up, that doesn’t mean there can’t be bad years.”
Precipitation models are no longer as reliable, he said. “A little bit of water or a bunch of water at the wrong time can wreak havoc,” Eigenbrode said.
REACCH culminated in a book and webinar series, “Advances in Dryland Farming in the Pacific Northwest.”
In the book, the researchers wrote that “human-caused climate change is forecasted to increase the frequency of temperature-induced drought conditions and late summer water deficits.” They predict the changes will likely “surpass historic year-to-year climate variability by mid-century.”
They also predict that the “frequency and severity of extreme weather events will ... increase, and may increase production risk.”
But the impacts won’t all be bad, they wrote.
More atmospheric carbon dioxide “may benefit yields by increasing energy and water use efficiencies” and growing seasons will get longer.
However, the “overall impact of these various factors is likely to vary across the region.”
The researchers recommend conservation tillage systems, also known as no-till, and new rotation crops such as legumes and oilseeds that can improve productivity and profitability in addition to helping farmers to adapt to somewhat warmer, drier weather.
Integrated weed and insect management strategies, in addition to precision agriculture programs, are also recommended.
REACCH documented the “current situation on the ground,” and expected crop conditions, said Jodi Johnson-Maynard, leader of the new study, Landscapes in Transition, known by the acronym LIT.
LIT, a $3.4 million, four-year study, aims to help farmers adapt to climate change and maintain profitability into the future. It involves 11 principal investigators, also from UI, OSU, WSU and USDA ARS.
LIT has trials in four farmers’ fields, and roughly 40 farmer or industry stakeholders, Johnson-Maynard said.
Bringing so many experts together for the initial study made the LIT project more attractive when seeking federal funding, she said.
“We have all of this data, we know where we’ve been, we know where we’re going and we have a research team that’s proven we can pull off this level of science in a collaborative way,” she said.
LIT is a more focused look at alternative crops that could be introduced to boost soil health and crop systems as the climate changes, Johnson-Maynard said.
One study, of adding cover crops and winter peas to rotations, will document the impacts doing that would have on soil health and water and nitrogen use, Johnson-Maynard said.
“Maybe one crop uses a bit more water, but overall you might get a big benefit and sustainable rotation,” she said.
Eigenbrode, the original study’s leader, believes farmers involved in the new effort recognize the climate is changing, and they can be more profitable if they follow the guidance.
Researchers are doing the work at the test plots on his land, but Odberg, the farmer, says he’s getting to see their findings first-hand.
Results so far indicate not much difference between the benefits of cover crops or winter peas, Odberg said.
Winter peas would provide an income. They would also increase biomass, organic matter in the soil and be beneficial to underground diversity.
“You’re taking advantage of that winter moisture,” he said.
Cover crops attract more pollinators and benefit livestock when grazed, he added. But there’s a fine line, he said, because they can use too much moisture. Because of that, they’d be more useful in some areas than others.
Both options provide residual beneficial nitrogen.
A no-till farmer, Odberg raises winter wheat, spring wheat, canola, chickpeas — also known as garbanzo beans — and has tried experimental crops such as millet, sunflowers, sorghum and flax, with varying degrees of success.
Odberg said one of his goals is to improve the soil’s quality and increase the number of beneficial microbes underground.
He feels like he’s reached a plateau with no-till farming. He’d like to build upon a more diverse crop rotation.
“We want to try cover crops, continue with no-till/direct seeding and really trying to improve our soil quality,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
The researchers are also working on three 25-acre plots belonging to another Genesee farmer, Clint Zenner.
They’re monitoring wind, rain, weather, carbon dioxide and soil moisture, Zenner said.
Zenner echoes Odberg in saying he’s seeing more severe rain and weather compared to 15 years ago. It might be more of a problem if he weren’t no-till farming, Zenner said.
“But to me, it seems like it’s kind of been a positive change in weather, because man, we’re getting some timely rains in May and June,” he said. “We are seeing a little less than historic fall moisture — September-ish it seems a little more sporadic.”
Zenner likes to leave as much residue as possible to protect the soil and help it absorb those heavier rains. He also stopped using a heavy harrow and changed the type of drill he uses, which is more conducive to planting through residue.
He keeps an actively growing crop on the farm all year, the better to hold the soil and feed biological activity underground through the winter and early spring.
He raises chickpeas, Austrian winter peas, spring green peas, canola, hard white spring wheat, soft white spring wheat, soft white winter wheat, barley, alfalfa and has 100 cow-calf pairs.
Zenner’s tried cover cropping and intensive grazing, but says he hasn’t quantified the benefits yet.
“The economic value is at best a break-even,” he said. “I think long-term there’s going to be soil benefits that we have not been able to measure scientifically yet, but I don’t know — it’s been tough to prove so far.”
That’s one of the reasons to cooperate with the researchers, he says.
Zenner says he wants the “warm, fuzzy feeling” of knowing his farm practices benefit the ecosystem, wildlife, downstream water, the environment — and that he remains profitable at the same time.
“That’s my passion and my goal — to make better dirt and make better cows,” he said.
The COVID-19 quarantine has slightly impacted the study, Johnson-Maynard said.
The University of Idaho is teaching courses online, and only essential research is allowed, she said. That includes essential field work, such as seeding, maintaining and baseline sampling of plots.
But researchers have to maintain social distancing, so they travel one person per vehicle, and work in small groups in the field and the laboratory.
“It’s slowing us down, but as long as everybody stays healthy, we are planning to keep moving forward,” Johnson-Maynard said. “We may be a bit delayed, but we’re collecting all the samples and will store them in a state that won’t preclude later analysis.”
The LIT study is slated to end July 31, 2021.
Johnson-Maynard plans to ask USDA for a one-year, no-cost extension once the total impact of COVID-19 on the project is known.
“At this point we’re estimating we’re probably going to be at least two or three months behind schedule,” she said.
Benefiting the soil
“With margins as tight as they are, my top priority is always cost of production and net return per acre,” said Zenner, the farmer.
But his second priority is regenerating soil to be more resilient to withstand “these weird weather events that we’re getting,” he said, giving the ground some rest and building organic matter.
Both studies, REACCH and LIT, offer on-farm research through land-grant universities, providing answers to growers’ questions and educating farmers and consumers alike, Zenner said.
“I want to know if the practices I’m doing are benefitting the soil for future generations,” he said. “I have four kids and if some of them want to farm, I want to turn the farm over to them. You want to make something better for your family to hopefully sustain their life and income.”
Studies like REACCH and LIT help farmers learn what works, and what doesn’t, sooner, Odberg said.
“Finding that stuff out before the trial-and-error on my own farm, I think is a great benefit for producers in the area,” he said.