Managing through variable conditions has always been a challenge in agriculture. But the timing of essential activities — like planting, pollination, harvesting and pest management — is becoming less predictable. Variable temperatures and abrupt temperature swings increase the risk of frost damage. They can also lead to perennial crop damage or loss. Sudden spikes in spring temperatures can cause early bud break. If this is followed by colder temperatures, yields may be reduced. Heat spikes during spring and summer can affect crop quality and livestock health.
Variability in seasonal precipitation can be equally challenging. Rain in winter or snow that melts and then freezes overnight creates icy conditions. This may be unsafe for livestock and can also cause winterkill of forage crops. Both sudden snowmelt and long dry periods followed by extreme precipitation can create rapid runoff. When this happens, the water can’t be absorbed into soils and may cause erosion.
Impacts caused by variable conditions increase management complexity and costs for producers. However, some changes may open up new opportunities. For example, more growing degree days and an extended growing season could allow crops and varieties to be grown in new areas. Taking advantage of this will depend on the ability of producers to manage the risks that come with seasonal variability.