Climate change decreases number of working days for Illinois farmers

Extreme heat and drought are becoming more common thanks to climate change, both lead to “kernel abortion” in corn plants. (Erick Larson/Mississippi State Extension)
Jenna Ladd | April 6, 2017

Researchers at the University of Illinois recently released a study that predicts the impact climate change will have on agriculture in the state.

The research article, published in PLOS One, centers around one variable called “field working days.” This term refers to the days during which the weather is suitable for farmers to plant, till, monitor, or harvest crops. Adam Davis is a University of Illinois USDA Agricultural Research Service ecologist. Davis said, “Everything else flows from field working days. If you’re not able to work, everything else gets backed up. Workable days will determine the cultivars, the cropping system, and the types of pest management practices you can use. We’re simply asking, ‘Can you get in to plant your crop?”

Utilizing previously developed climate models, the researchers predicted the number of field working days for farmers in Illinois from 2046 to 2065 and from 2080 to 2099. The study modeled three possible trajectories ranging from mild to severe climate change.

Notably, the study predicts that the usual planting window for corn, April and May, will be too wet for planting in the future. Too much rain can be harmful for seedlings because it can wash them away or lead to harmful fungal and bacterial growth.

Davis said, “The season fragments and we start to see an early-early season, so that March starts looking like a good target for planting in the future. In the past, March has been the bleeding edge; nobody in their right mind would have planted then. But we’ve already seen the trend for early planting. It’s going to keep trending in that direction for summer annuals.”

While the spring months grow wetter, summer months are predicted to become drier and hotter, especially in the southern parts of Illinois. “Drought periods will intensify in mid- to late-summer under all the climate scenarios. If farmers decide to plant later to avoid the wet period in April and May, they’re going to run into drought that will hit yield during the anthesis-silking interval, leading to a lot of kernel abortion,” Davis explained.

The article offers two possible adaptations for farmers. They could opt for earlier planting of long-season varieties that should have enough time to pollinate before summer droughts, but they’d risk getting hit by a late winter storm. Or, the researchers suggest, farmers could plant short-season cultivars that are harvested prior to summer droughts. In this case, growers could be sacrificing yield due to the shorter growing season.

Either way, Davis said, farmers should begin considering how they can best adapt to the changing climate. He said, “Now is the time to prepare, because the future is here.”

IML-CZO Investigator Profiles: Andrew Stumpf (Illinois State Geological Survey)

Dr. Andrew Stumpf (right) is an Associate Quaternary Geologist for the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) in the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Photo: Christopher J. Stohr (ISGS)
Dr. Andrew Stumpf (right) is an Associate Quaternary Geologist for the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) in the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. (Christopher J. Stohr/ISGS)
Nick Fetty | April 1, 2016

This is part of a series of articles featuring investigators and researchers with the IML-CZO project which “works to understand how land-use changes affect the long-term resilience of the critical zone.”

Between roughly 2 million years ago and 10,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene Epoch or “Ice Age,” massive glaciers swept across Illinois and other parts of the country. IML-CZO investigator Andrew Stumpf is studying the history of Pleistocene glaciations and their impacts on the land.

Stumpf, an Associate Quaternary Geologist at the Illinois State Geological Survey in the Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, is contributing in two primary ways to the research program of the IML-CZO project. His first research focus is “to better understand how the Upper Sangamon River Basin (USRB) evolved through the most recent geologic time over the last 2.6 million years,” known as the Quaternary Period. Specifically, he and his research team are looking at how the present-day river system formed. Since the Laurentide Ice Sheet receded back to the north out of the USRB, approximately 20,000 years ago, the river system has continually changed in an effort to reach equilibrium with the natural- and anthropogenic-driven processes affecting it.

“Ongoing natural changes and the latest anthropogenic changes have significantly altered the postglacial landscape,” says Stumpf. “The amount of water moving across the land has fluctuated over time, and continued periods of erosion, sediment transport, and deposition in the river basin have caused shifts in the position of drainage channels. Today, both natural processes and anthropogenic impacts are working in tandem to affect their positions.”

The conversion of much of the natural Illinois landscape into cropland, predominantly corn and soybeans, has also greatly altered the landscape. According to Stumpf, “Land that was either forested and well drained or poorly-drained prairie has been converted in very short time—roughly 200 years—into tilled row cropland. Tile drainage has been successful in reclaiming flood-prone lands and has significantly altered the natural hydrologic system.”

He observed that tile drainage pipe is typically installed at a depth of 3 to 6 feet, where it intercepts the infiltrating rainwater and effectively lowers the water table. Infiltrating water that previously reached the lower stratum is now directed through tiles, concentrating runoff along a series of dug ditches. This change in farming practice has reduced the time that water is held in the soil and has increased the rate of runoff, which can exacerbate erosion and affect land that did not flood in the past.

Stumpf’s second research focus in the IML-CZO project involves examining geochemical variations in the “critical zone,” which was first defined by the U.S. National Research Council (NRC, 2001) as the “heterogeneous, near-surface environment in which complex interactions involving rock, soil, water, air, and living organisms regulate the natural habitat and determine the availability of life-sustaining resources;” (p. 37).

“The lower part of the critical zone includes extended intervals of sediment left behind by the glaciers, known by geologists as glacial till” explains Stumpf. “In the river basin, till has a distinctive geochemistry that is influenced by the incorporation of minerals from sedimentary bedrock (shale and dolomite) found in northeastern Illinois, and by far-traveled material ‘erratics’ carried from igneous and metamorphic bedrock outcropping further north on the Canadian Shield.”

However, he adds, “Farmland soil is formed by the physical and chemical weathering of till and the overlying windblown silt and sand, or loess, which is geochemically much different. Soil-forming processes have caused minerals to break down and, in some cases, recrystallize into different minerals or chemical structures,” says Stumpf. “Iron and manganese minerals are common in the soil, and when exposed to oxygen or oxygenated water, they turn orange and brown, giving soil its characteristic color or hue. Plants, a component of the critical zone, interact with the soil through their root systems and absorb certain elements that are concentrated in the vegetative tissue.”

One example is Achillea millefolium, or common yarrow, which has been shown to accumulate zinc. He added, “The presence of certain elements in plants can be useful in predicting the composition or health of the soil.”

Stumpf’s aim is to use his research to inform farmers, land managers, policy makers, and other members of the public about issues that can affect them. Providing outreach and education to these groups is also a focus of the IML-CZO project.

“Understanding how landscapes evolve over time, leading to the formation of soil—soil is the backbone of precision agriculture—is imperative for modeling the interconnected food, energy, and water systems. Competition for natural resources, such as water for food and energy production, can influence water quality for food production and increase competition for available resources (land, nutrients, and water) between biofuel and food production,” says Stumpf. He hopes to apply his expertise to help inform farmers, decision makers, stakeholders, and the public so they can address these complex socio-environmental issues from an informed perspective.

Works Cited: National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Basic Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences. 2001. Basic Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences. National Academies Press: Washington, DC, 168 p.,

Midwest researchers come together for research project

Doug Schnoebelen, left, explains early 20th century mussel production along the Mississippi River during the CZO-IML conference on July 29, 2015. (Photo by Nick Fetty)
Doug Schnoebelen explains early 20th century mussel production along the Mississippi River during the CZO-IML conference on July 29, 2015. From left, Schnoebelen, Praveen Kumar, Thanos Papanicolaou, and Chris Wilson. (Photo by Nick Fetty)

Nick Fetty | July 30, 2015

Roughly 30 students, professors, and researchers from six different institutions met in Muscatine this week to discuss a collaborative research effort to improve land, water, and air quality in the Midwest.

This Midwestern project is part of a nation-wide project known as the Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) an effort by the National Science Foundation to “[study] the zone where rock meets life.” The Midwestern project is called the CZO-IML (Intensely Managed Landscapes) and focuses on watersheds and lands in Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota.

The Lucille A. Carver Mississippi Riverside Environmental Research Station (LACMRERS) in Muscatine hosted the IML-CZO conference which began Tuesday and ends today. This marked the second annual meeting for what will be a five year project.

“The first year was a lot of planning and field campaigns. The second year we’ve collected some data will be able to get that back to look at the results. We finally have some things to discuss, some real science,” said LACMRERS Director Doug Schnoebelen.

Schnoebelen, who also serves as a contributor for the IML-CZO project as well as a member of CGRER, said he hopes this research will be helpful not just for farmers and watershed managers but also for the general public.

“We’re hoping to look at an integrated approach and that’s what the Critical Zone is, being able to say something about water movement, soil conservation, transformation of carbon and energy in the environment. All of these things are really critical to the soil, the water, and the way we live.”

The conference brought together researchers from Indiana University, Northwestern University, Purdue University, University of Illinois, University of Iowa, and University of Tennessee. Schnoebelen said this emphasis on collaboration over competition has been key to the success of the project. He added that he is also grateful the CZO chose to support a Midwestern research project since much of the CZO’s other research takes place on the coasts.

“I think it was important when the national team came out and they realized how managed our landscape was and how important this research really was. It’s not just flyover country in the Midwest, it’s a critical part of our economy for food and energy.”

2015 Cover Crop Conference coming to West Des Monies

This farmer in South Dakota utilizes a cover crop combination of crimson clover, oats, common vetch, radish, and New York style turnip. (USDA NRCS South Dakota/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | January 27, 2015

The 2015 Iowa Cover Crops Conference will be held in West Des Moines on February 17 and 18.

The annual event is hosted by the Soil and Water Conservation Society, Conservation Districts of Iowa , and the Midwest Cover Crops Council. This year’s event will include a presentation from Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey as well as farmers and other agribusiness professionals.

Cover crop usage in Iowa has gained momentum in recent years with just 10,000 acres planted in 2009 and more than 300,000 acres by 2013. Cover crops are one of the techniques outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy as a way of minimizing fertilizer runoff which pollutes waterways. Approximately 70 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus in the Gulf of Mexico dead zone came from the Mississippi River.

A report by the international consulting firm Datu Research last year found that 23 percent of Iowa farmers reported utilizing cover crops. The report found that Iowa farmers are also practicing no-till and minimum tillage techniques as well as crop rotation, all of which can reduce runoff and improve soil health.

An ongoing study by researchers at the University of Illinois suggests that the use of cover crops does not increase yields but it does “increase the amount of sequestered soil organic carbon.” However, research by scientists at Purdue University has found that cover crops can improve corn stover yields which can be used as a biofuel.

The cost of next month’s event is $99 for those who register before February 16 and $125 for those who register onsite.

Journal features ISU research on agriculture and climate change

This farmer utilizes contour farming and conservation tillage techniques on his Warren County farm in 2011. (Wikimedia)
This farmer utilizes contour farming and conservation tillage techniques on his Warren County farm in 2011. (Wikimedia)

Nick Fetty | December 11, 2014

The most recent issue of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation includes several articles by Iowa State University researchers focused on ways that climate change is affecting agriculture.

Researchers and graduate students in from Climate and Corn-based Cropping Systems Coordinated Agricultural Project contributed to most of the articles in the recent issue. The project, known simply as the Sustainable Corn Project, is based at Iowa State University and is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of the 20 reports in the recent journal issue, 14 were authored by researchers with the Sustainable Corn Project.

One of the reports analyzed the effects cover crops have on nitrous oxide emissions, concluding that cover crops increased nitorus oxide levels in 60 percent of published observations. The authors point out that certain variables could have affected the reaction between the cover crops and nitrous oxide emissions including “fertilizer N(itrogen) rate, soil incorporation, and the period of measurement and rainfall.”

The Sustainable Corn Project is a collaboration between 10 Midwestwen land-grant universities: Iowa State University, Lincoln University (MO), Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Purdue University, South Dakota State University, University of Illinois,  University of Minnesota, University of Missouri, and University of Wisconsin. Roughly 160 scientists, engineers, educators, and students work with more than 200 farmers on this project.

University of Iowa hosts international conference about environmental contamination

Nick Fetty | August 19, 2014
Water pollution in China. (Bert van Dijk/Flickr)
Water contamination in China. (Bert van Dijk/Flickr)

Beginning today and continuing through Friday, the University of Iowa is hosting a conference to discuss emerging contaminants and their effect on the environment.

EmCon 2014: Fourth International Conference on Occurrence, Fate, Effects & Analysis of Emerging Contaminants in the Environment will feature speakers from all across the world, including a keynote speech from University of Iowa engineering professor and CGRER co-director Jerry Schnoor. Representatives from various Big Ten schools (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue, Wisconsin) as well as Iowa State, Stanford and several other educational and governmental entities are scheduled to give speeches or other presentations. The event “will focus on the most recent developments and findings concerning the source, occurrence, fate, effects, and analysis of emerging contaminants in the environment, providing an ideal venue for exchange of cutting-edge ideas and information in this rapidly evolving research area.”

The first conference, EmCon 2007, was held in York, United Kingdom and brought in more than 100 attendees from all around the world. EmCon 2009 was in Fort Collins, Colorado and EmCon 2011 was in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The National Hydraulic Engineering Conference 2014 is also taking place in Iowa City this week. This event will focus on “sustainability in the design of infrastructure in a rapidly changing environment.”

EmCon 2014 begins at 4 p.m. today and the full schedule of events is available here.

Researchers look to start Center for Nutrient Management

Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia, Flickr.
Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia, Flickr.

University researchers are hoping to create the Center for Nutrient Management at Iowa State University, the University of Iowa and the University of Illinois.

This new center would work on solutions to limiting farm runoff. As detailed in our radio segment, Iowa’s runoff contributes to an area in the Gulf of Mexico known as a dead zone. This dead zone is unlivable for most marine life due to lack of oxygen.

In order to start the center, the researchers need to obtain a $2.5 million federal grant.

Read more here.

UI’s Greg Carmichael co-authors column on climate change

Storm in Ankeny, IA. Photo by ahhyeah, Flickr.

Greg Carmichael (Professor of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering at the University of Iowa and co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research) and Donald Wuebbles (Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois) have co-authored a new column on climate change.

Specifically, this column discusses how there is a strong probability that extreme weather events – including ones seen this year – are linked to climate change.

The column concludes with a series of tips for reducing humans’ impact on climate, including an increased focus on renewable energy and fuel-efficient transportation.

Read the full column here.