What Does El Niño Mean for U.S. Farmers This Season?

Rejeana Gvillo

Jul 10, 2023

Global weather conditions this year will transition from La Niña, which has been in place for the last three years, to El Niño. El Niño conditions, which historically peak in December, usually mean a wetter than normal winter season in the southern third of the U.S. 

Weather experts expect this year's El Niño to continue building and remain strong through the end of the year and into early 2024 winter. 

This means the 2023 weather pattern will be the inverse of what we’ve seen over the last three years, in which there have been back-to-back-to-back La Niña seasons. Aligning with the climate pattern’s historical peak, a moderate to strong El Niño event is expected in the second half of 2023 and over the winter season of 2023/2024. This will likely affect global weather patterns, including the U.S. winter, and substantially impact American farmers.

[RELATED: Weather Predictions and Patterns to Watch For in 2023]

What Is El Niño? 

El Niño is a climate pattern caused by the warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean’s surface water. As NOAA explains, these “warmer waters cause the Pacific jet stream to move south of its neutral position,” noticeably shifting U.S. weather patterns. 

Under the El Niño weather pattern, the Southern U.S. — including the southwestern U.S. states and California — typically experiences cooler, wetter winters while the northern half of the U.S. sees warmer winter weather. The Pacific Northwest, Ohio Valley, northern Rockies, and parts of the Corn Belt usually experience warmer and potentially dryer weather in the winter season. 

(Keep in mind, however, that while historical data indicates the weather patterns outlined above, even a strong El Niño isn’t necessarily a guarantee that those exact scenarios will play out.)

What Does El Niño Mean for Farmers?

The wetter than normal winter season in the Southern U.S. may mean more trouble for livestock producers than row crop farmers, but parts of the U.S. are already suffering from less than ideal weather conditions. 

El Niño weather patterns typically last between 9 and 12 months, developing between March-June and often peaking December-April. This outline is provided in the following graph (ENSO Values and Probability by Month), which is updated through April. 

(While we are currently considered to be in an El Niño, the official monthly data used for this chart run through April. When those data points are updated to reflect the situation through June, the ‘Recent Trends’ chart will push through the El Niño marker on the y-axis.)

Although the Corn Belt is experiencing dry conditions right now, especially in the eastern areas, NOAA anticipates the U.S. could be impacted by El Niño more so in the winter months given its historical peak timing.

For comparison purposes, however, the chart here (ENSO Stage in Jul and Rainfall Total for Jul-Sep) shows average rainfall totals between July-September when an El Niño is present for July. Eastern Corn Belt states, such as Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, do tend to have less rainfall compared to a normal year, with Indiana and Ohio seeing sizable deviations. That may mean that the drier bias currently present for Indiana and Ohio could continue for the coming months, hampering yield possibilities for corn and soybeans. 

That said, the southern area of the U.S. tends to have heavier rainfall totals in El Niño conditions compared to typical winter months. That is highlighted in the following chart (ENSO Stage in Dec and Average Rainfall Total for Dec-Feb), which compares rainfall averages from December-February based on whether we are in El Niño, La Niña or neutral ENSO situation. 

It is clear that, on average, many southern states have more accumulated rainfall during El Niño years compared to others for those months. For producers in these states, expect a wetter-than-average winter period for 2023/24.  

El Niño patterns usually last about a year, so this weather outlook may no longer be present for the 2024/25 season. 

How Can Farmers Prepare for El Niño Weather Impacts? 

Because increased moisture creates a favorable environment for fungal growth, excessive rainfall can lead to an increased risk of fungus impacting crops. Fungi thrive in warm, moist conditions; when there is too much rain, soil can become waterlogged, leading to root rot and other fungal diseases. Intense rain can also cause spores to spread more easily, increasing the likelihood of fungal infections. 

Farmers should monitor their crops closely during periods of heavy rainfall and take steps to prevent fungal growth, such as improving drainage and using fungicides like GCS Azoxyprop if necessary. With active ingredients Azoxystrobin (1.18 lbs/gal) and Propiconazole (1.02 lbs/gal), the same ingredients in Quilt® Xcel Fungicide, GCS Azoxyprop is a broad spectrum fungicide intended to manage many plant diseases in labeled row and specialty crops. 

Another way to prepare for major weather impacts this season, including the lack of rain anticipated in some areas of the country, is by proactively securing appropriate insurance coverage for your operation. 

The federally reinsured Rainfall Index insurance program for Annual Forage, Pasture, Rangeland and Forage (PRF) and Apiculture is an additional risk management tool available to protect against the lack of rainfall. Because experts expect a strong El Niño this year, while it may or may not occur, having a risk mitigation plan in place would be a good insurance policy if you do not receive sufficient rainfall. 

For more information on these programs and other insurance coverage policies available from FBN Insurance, click here or call 877-576-4468 to connect directly with a member of our team. 

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Rejeana Gvillo

Jul 10, 2023