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Let the worms do the work – Critters help dairies manage manure

Posted by Sonia A. Hall | April 18, 2017

Got milk? Dairies are in the milk business, but must also manage manure produced along the way, and the potentially useful nutrients it holds. Photo: NRCS in Oregon under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Managing manure is a big part of what goes on at the “back end” of a dairy. Doing it well is important to avoid impacts on surrounding neighbors due to odors, impacts on air and water quality, or the release of unnecessary amounts of greenhouse gases such as methane or nitrous oxides (which, by the way, are respectively 28 and 265 times more powerful as global warming “blankets” than carbon dioxide). There are multiple technologies being developed, tested, and used to improve manure management in dairies. These include anaerobic digestion, which produces bioenergy and helps reduce odors (we provided an overview about a year ago in this article). Nutrient recovery technologies are another aspect being studied. These are an array of different technologies that allow us to collect the potentially useful nitrogen and phosphorus found in manure, so it can be used productively rather than contributing to climate change or other issues. Read more »

Parched and drenched – we can expect both in the Northwest

Posted by Sonia A. Hall | March 15, 2017

The snow-covered landscape, the Columbia River, and the pine forests covered with signs of the recent ice storm provided the backdrop for the Climate Impacts to Water Conference, hosted by Washington State University Extension. University of Idaho climate scientist John Abatzoglou gave a plenary talk, titled Parched and Drenched: Future Climate and Water Resources in the Pacific Northwest (check out the recording here).

What I really liked about Abatzoglou’s presentation was that he focused on one key number, and then got into the weeds of what it means and why it’s important to us. That key number in this case was the fact that the Northwest has seen an increase in average temperatures of 1°C (that’s almost 2°F, if you prefer Fahrenheit), which has mostly occurred in the last 50 years. Is this an important change, and should we care? Yes, because this past temperature increase has already led to more rain and less snow, a reduced winter snowpack, and spring runoff coming earlier in the year, leaving us drier in the summer. Read more »

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Under what climatic conditions will it make economic sense to switch to a new irrigation system?

Posted by Keyvan Malek | March 2, 2017

High-efficiency drip irrigation system in wine grapes, a perennial, high-value crop in the region. Photo by Flickr user davitydave under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Investing in efficient irrigation systems usually requires significant capital. As with other capital-intensive investments, doing it would only make economic sense if the benefits exceed the costs. Each farmer can estimate the cost of switching their system to a high-efficiency system. But what about the benefits? What do they depend on? And will those factors they depend on change in the future? We used a model to play out some “what if” scenarios to address these questions in Washington’s Yakima Basin (see this article on using models in this way).

Efficient irrigation systems can improve yields through a more efficient delivery of water to the root zone, where crops can access it. Say you have 2 acre-feet of irrigation water available. With a traditional system you might lose 40% of that water through evaporation, drift, or percolation beyond the rooting depth, so your crop will only have 1.2 ac-ft to use. With a high-efficiency system, that availability might go up to 1.9 ac-ft or more, which allows the crop to produce higher yields. Read more »

Summarizing Scientific Knowledge about Agriculture and Climate Change in the Northwest U.S. and Plotting a Roadmap for the Future

Posted by Liz Allen | March 2, 2017

Back in March of 2016, a group of agriculture sector stakeholders– including researchers, policy makers and producers– met in Tri-Cities, Washington, for the Agriculture in a Changing Climate Workshop. The three-day workshop was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Northwest Climate Hub and National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Facilitators from the William D. Ruckelshaus Center were instrumental in supporting generative dialogue. Workshop participants worked together to define priorities for the future research and extension efforts focused on climate change mitigation and adaptation in the Northwest. Read more »

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Hot, hotter, hottest (so far) – Should I care?

Posted by Sonia A. Hall | February 9, 2017

I must confess that sometimes I like geeking out on data—raw climate data, for example. But most of the time I don’t have enough background knowledge about the complex and detailed data I’m looking at to interpret what it shows me about the big picture. So I really appreciate it when the experts take the time to present and discuss their data in a way that helps me understand the underlying patterns. If you are like me in that way, you might enjoy a recent (January 2017) Beyond the Data blog article by NOAA climate scientist Jessica Blunden, discussing how unusual the 2014-2016 global record-temperature “three-peat” is, relative to the temperature record over the last 100+ years.

Granted, you can argue that Blunden chose this “three-peat” to make a particular point. Yes, choosing a particular way to slice the data can be arbitrary, unless you have the statistical expertise to pull out from the data themselves the most relevant slicing (which I don’t). Nonetheless, Blunden’s article provides some interesting food for thought about long-term trends, and a variety of ways to look at the data to see if we should care about a particular pattern, in this case the 2014-2016 “three-peat.” Read more »

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Flex Cropping – Storing More Carbon Under Challenging Environmental Conditions

Posted by Georgine Yorgey | December 16, 2016

Residues from more frequent cropping feed the soil by adding organic matter. Grower Bill Jepsen pictured. Photo: S. Kantor.

Organic matter – the organic component of soil – is key to soil health. Organic matter serves as a reservoir of nutrients for crops, provides soil aggregation, increases nutrient exchange, retains moisture, reduces compaction, reduces surface crusting, and increases water infiltration into the soil. And organic matter is closely related to soil organic carbon, the carbon stored in organic matter. Soils with high levels of organic matter have higher levels of carbon, and consequently also benefit the climate by “sequestering” carbon that otherwise would be in the atmosphere.

In the rain-fed croplands of the Pacific Northwest, wheat-based agriculture has historically mined carbon out of the soil. Near Pendleton, winter wheat grown every other year depleted soil organic carbon up to 63% over 80 years of cultivation.[1] Re-building soil carbon is thus an important task for supporting continued agricultural productivity across the region. Read more »

BioEarth Webinar Series: Reporting on five years of climate impacts & nutrient dynamics research in the Northwest US

Posted by Liz Allen | November 30, 2016

WSU’s BioEarth research team is hosting a webinar series in collaboration with the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. The BioEarth project has sought to model biogeochemical cycles in a changing climate at the regional scale. Researchers will share their findings related to climate change impacts on Northwest US water resources, nutrient cycling, and managed and natural ecosystems. Webinars will focus on implications of research results for natural and agricultural resource management decisions. Details about the webinar series are available here. Read more »

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High Residue Farming Workshop for Irrigated Producers

Posted by Georgine Yorgey | November 21, 2016
Corn plants coming up among strips of wheat.  Photo: D. Kilgore.

Corn plants coming up among strips of wheat. Photo: D. Kilgore.

WSU Extension is hosting an upcoming workshop on the basics of High Residue Farming on November 30, 2016, 9:30-3:30 in Moses Lake.  Details for those interested in attending are available here (lunch included if you pre-register by 11/22).

High residue farming is a term that covers a number of different specific farming practices, including strip-till and direct seeding. In all these systems, the amount of tillage is reduced in order to maintain crop residues on the soil surface.  High residue farming provides a number of benefits, but two key ones include reducing wind erosion (and the need to replant sand-blasted crops) and reducing the amount of time and equipment needed to plant. It can also improve soil health, increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil, and in some cases increase the potential for double-cropping. Read more »

Growing condition analogues – Understanding future climate through past experience

Posted by Kirti Rajagopalan | November 14, 2016
Though Appletown in this article is a theoretical location, producers sharing what practices work for them is a real source of information that can help others make decisions under uncertain future conditions. Photo credit: Scott Bauer/USDA, under CC BY 2.0

Though Appletown in this article is a theoretical location, producers sharing what practices work for them is a real source of information that can help others make decisions under uncertain future conditions. Photo credit: Scott Bauer/USDA, under CC BY 2.0

Weather is the most important driver of agricultural production. Year-to-year changes in the weather affect growing conditions, which then lead to important swings in yields, quality, timing and marketability of Pacific Northwest products such as apples, wheat, potatoes, and hay. In a similar way, changes in climate are leading to changes in growing conditions, and these changes also pose risks to production. Growing condition analogues are an approach to identifying and exploring past experiences that are relevant to understanding the risks expected in the future.

Over the years—and in some cases over generations—producers have refined their management practices to best address the complex interactions between the crops they grow and the wide range of growing conditions that determine the productivity and sustainability of their operation. These best practices are adapted to the local conditions and are continuously improved over the years, creating a rich body of location-specific agronomic knowledge. With the wide range of conditions that have occurred over the Pacific Northwest’s agricultural history—to say nothing of the range of conditions across different agricultural regions in North America—there’s a wealth of experiences out there that growers can tap into. The challenge is to know which experiences can help one determine how best to prepare for what the future will bring for one’s location. That’s where growing condition analogues come in. Read more »

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The Fallout of October Rains in the Desert

Posted by Andrew McGuire | November 1, 2016
Photo: C. Chene via Flickr cc.

Photo: C. Chene via Flickr cc.

Here in the Columbia Basin, something extraordinary has happened; it rained a lot in October. Although not technically a desert, we are normally desert-like from June-October. Not this year. How much rain did we get? Well, in Ephrata where I live, we have seen over 2.5 inches of rain. I know, not much, even by Inland Northwest standards. But 2.5” is record rainfall for us – never have we seen so much rain in October – and it has had some consequences.

They don’t often admit it, perhaps out of respect for dryland farmers to the East, but farmers in the Columbia Basin prefer to get their water out the end of a sprinkler. They like to control how much and when the water falls on their fields.  When it comes out of the sky, it messes things up. The rains have delayed harvest of late potatoes, onions, dry beans and other crops. Although I expect all these crops will be harvested, the wet ground and crops probably caused some yield losses, and equipment traffic on wet soils likely compacted soils which will require additional tillage to fix.

Read more »

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