Last month temperatures hovered around the zero degree mark several nights in a row. That was welcome weather in a variety of ways for local grain farmers. In fact, the weather situation has been a welcome sight to many in the agriculture community this winter.
First, we were fortunate to have some rain during the months of November, December and early January. Most of this rain soaked into the soil. Even the 12 to 18 inches of snow we had in December seemed to be swallowed up by the dry soil as it melted the following week. The subsoil was replenished, creeks began flowing again and farm ponds could finally fill back up with runoff water.
With the subsoil recharged, we were set up for the next stage of winter weather to hit. A cold snap slammed the Midwest during the last week of January. But the frigid weather was welcomed by farmers because a hard freeze breaks up compacted soil. If you’ve ever left your rain gauge outside for the first hard freeze, you’ve probably witnessed water expanding when it freezes. (You also discovered it was time to buy a new rain gauge.) As the first wave of cold weather hit late in January, there was no snow cover—this actually allowed a deeper freeze into the soil, as snow will insulate the soil beneath it.
Today’s farm equipment is heavy. Even with dual wheels, floatation tires and tracks, there is still going to be some compaction of the soil. Compacted soil impedes water infiltration and oxygen movement throughout the soil profile. A compacted layer of soil a few inches below the surface prevents roots from growing deep to reach water and fertilizer during the dry summer months. Soil is not only composed of organic matter and minerals but also air and water. When the water in the soil freezes, it causes the area between the soil particles to expand, which essentially breaks up the compaction that heavy farm equipment caused the prior year.
A hard freeze is also welcomed to keep soybean rust at a distance. Soybean rust has been at the forefront of potentially devastating diseases for the last couple of years. South American farmers—especially in Brazil—have to make multiple applications of fungicides during the growing season to prevent the disease. It thrives in warm, humid conditions, and around the equator, this climate exists throughout the year. Since soybean rust cannot survive a hard freeze, it seems the best way to keep it at bay in the Midwest is with cold winters. It is believed that soybean rust was carried by a hurricane to the southern U.S. a few years ago. Each year the disease becomes a little more widespread as it makes an appearance further north. The lengthy cold spell in January and February should have significantly decreased the opportunity for the disease to take hold during the 2007 growing season.
Of course, there are downsides to freezing temperatures for farmers, including challenges with watering livestock, frozen pipes, problems starting diesel engines and hefty utility bills. But for the growing months to come, this winter weather is welcomed by the agricultural community. IBI