USDA Meteorologist Talks Weather Data and 2015’s Biggest Ag Story

Ahead of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Prospective Plantings report March 31, farmers, ranchers and agribusiness are looking at a number of factors that impact the upcoming planting season.  One of the most unpredictable factors is weather, and we turned to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Meteorologist Brad Rippey for a weather outlook for the balance of the growing year.


We talk about extreme weather a lot more often than we did years ago – what climate trends are you tracking in 2015?

Since late 2013, we’ve been watching a pool of anomalously warm water over the northeastern Pacific Ocean.  This seems to be having the effect of locking in warmer and drier-than-normal conditions across much of western North America, including drought-stricken California.  At the same time, below-normal temperatures have dominated most of the eastern U.S., leading to harsh winters (in 2013 and 2014) and a pleasantly cool growing season in 2014.  We’re also keeping an eye on the weak El Niño that has developed over the equatorial Pacific Ocean – which may be contributing to early-spring wetness in parts of the southern U.S., as well as fairly dry conditions in the upper Midwest.


How do those trends impact agriculture most directly?

Continuing drought in California, featuring diminishing surface and groundwater reserves, could be the most important U.S. agricultural story of 2015.  At this time, forecasts from the National Weather Service seem to indicate that the U.S. Corn Belt will be heading into a relatively benign growing season, without sustained periods of extreme heat, although current conditions vary from somewhat dry in the upper Midwest to rather wet in the Ohio Valley.  Heading into the spring planting season, one thing to watch will be wet fields and fieldwork delays in parts of the South, extending as far north as the Ohio Valley.  In addition, development of the Plains’ winter wheat has been accelerated by recent warmth, leaving the crop susceptible to spring freeze injury if untimely cold outbreaks occur in April or May.


California Drought

Depth markers at Lake Don Pedro near La Grange, California in March 2015. Brad Rippey says the California drought could be “the most important agricultural story of 2015.”



How does climate impact agriculture’s ability to achieve sustainability for new crops, growing methods or livestock production?

Climate change has brought about the need for U.S. agricultural adaptation.  For example, soybeans are grown farther north and west into the Dakotas than ever before, in part due to a warmer, wetter climate in recent decades.  In California and elsewhere in the western U.S., tough decisions are being made daily with regard to how to allocate ever-diminishing surface and groundwater reserves.  On the Great Plains, producers are using more efficient irrigation methods to help conserve the shrinking Ogallala Aquifer.  In recent months, the USDA has started several regional climate hubs to help farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners adapt to climate change and weather variability.  The hubs’ purpose will be to provide information and guidance on technologies and risk management practices at regional and local scales.


Tell us more about the U.S. Drought Monitor.  What goes into it, and how can the agricultural community use it?

The U.S. Drought Monitor, established in 1999, is a weekly map of drought conditions that is produced jointly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the USDA, and the National Drought Mitigation Center.  The map is based on measurements of climatic, hydrologic, and soil conditions, as well as reported impacts and observations from hundreds of academic, local, state, and federal experts. A community of trusted drought observers lends ground-truth credibility to this state-of-the-art blend of science and subjectivity that goes into the map.


Drought Monitor


Farming is increasingly data driven. What kinds of weather data can producers use to gauge and manage their weather-related risk? 

The resolution of the U.S. Drought Monitor has greatly improved during its 16 years of existence.  Currently, we strive for a drought depiction that delves to at least the county scale, based on raw data with a big assist from our boots-on-the-ground experts.   

We also encourage producers to become involved in the weather-monitoring process through avenues such as the Drought Impact Reporter, or becoming a volunteer weather observer through the Community Collaborative Rain, Snow, and Hail Network.  The data from both of these efforts are heavily utilized by the National Weather Service and other organizations, with a special focus on hydrological and drought monitoring.


Read More: Why USDA Reports Remain Important Tools in Ag Markets

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