GENESEE, Idaho — 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. It began in 2011 and is ongoing.
The biggest takeaway from the 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.