Wacky history-breaking winter

Tony Nye - OSU Extension

Well, they say spring is almost here but it sure seems like we just took two steps backward with weather.

I probably won’t get any peaches again for the third year in a row with the temperatures we just experienced. My daughter did her best to try to protect them, but I am afraid it was only a valiant effort that will bear no fruit.

Looking back at what has been one of the craziest winters for weather, it has been one for the records. Although the first several days of the February started with seasonably chilly temperatures, by the 5th, much warmer air built into the Ohio Valley.

February 2017 will largely be remembered for a historic stretch of unseasonable warmth that persisted in the region for most of the month. With the spring-like temperatures, snowfall values were very low.

According to the National Weather Service, the crazy weather pattern yielded historic warmth for a 2- to 3-week period for much of the region. The primary climate sites all recorded numerous days of 60°F+ warmth (Cincinnati 13, Columbus 10, and Dayton 10). For Cincinnati, this was the second-most days of high temperatures reaching at least 60°F+ on record in the month of February. Columbus and Dayton finished with the most 60°F+ temperatures on record in February.

In addition to the historic number of 60+ degree days, Columbus had the highest mean average temperature on record, Cincinnati was 2nd warmest, and Dayton was tied for warmest February on record.

Numerous temperature records were broken throughout the Month of February. Some of the February temperature records broken go back as far as 1890.

Looking back to January, weather was more like a big roller coaster.

According to the National Weather Service, a strong cold front moved through late on the 3rd into the 4th, ushering in much colder air to the Ohio Valley. In fact, arctic air settled into the Ohio Valley for the next several days, allowing for overnight lows to drop into the single digits and even below zero for some locations in the local area.

The temperature at Dayton (DAY) did not get above 20°F for 4 consecutive days from the 5th through the 9th, the longest such stretch since February of 2007.

After the cold spell, much warmer temperatures rapidly returned to the area past the 10th of January. In fact, record and near-record warmth built into the Ohio Valley by the 12th, with temperatures reaching into the mid to upper 60s across the area.

Columbus (CMH) tied their daily record high temperature of 67°F on the 12th (originally set in 1916). Although cooler temperatures briefly returned for the 13th through the 15th, another unusually warm pattern evolved past the middle of the month and persisted for two entire weeks.

On Jan. 17, Cincinnati (CVG) tied a daily record high temperature of 63°F (1952). Meanwhile, Columbus broke the old record of 62 degrees (1952) with a high temperature of 64 degrees.

So what is in our future? The outlook for March calls for near to slightly warmer than normal temperatures. We will not see the record warmth in March we saw in February. Precipitation will be near or slightly above normal.

The outlook for April and May calls for a turn from near-normal temperatures in April to warmer and slightly drier than normal conditions by late April into May.

The summer outlook continues to call for a warmer than normal period with rainfall at or below normal.

What has this wacky weather done to our alfalfa crop?

Once dormancy is broke, the plants start using the nutrients that were stored in the roots and crowns to start spring growth. The early start to regrowth is not the problem, the challenge is going to be how many times winter temperatures returned to average and force plants back into dormancy.

Another risk factor is ice formation on the soil surface each time we get a rain shower and it drops below freezing. The ice stops the exchange of gases between the air and soil; if the exchange stops for a prolonged period of time toxins can build up in the soil, causing the roots to run out of oxygen that damages the roots, weakening the plant reserves to break dormancy.

The other risk of wet soils and freezing and thawing is crown heaving. This usually snaps the taproot and raises the risk of crown damage during harvest. When the taproot snaps secondary roots can form that keep the plant alive but its nutrient uptake and ability to survive drought conditions decreases.

The next step is going to be an intensified scouting program this spring paying special attention to low areas and soils that warm up and cool faster which could have broken dormancy more times than other areas of the field.

When doing your scouting after dormancy breaks, you will want to take stem counts per square foot to get an idea of how the stand will perform this year. If stem counts are greater than 55 stems per square foot, stand density will not be a limiting factor.

When densities decrease to 55-40 stems, there will be some yield reductions but, yields will still be adequate in years of low inventory or high hay values. When stem counts fall below 40, the stand is poor and termination options need evaluated.

If damage is spotty across the field and a mixed stand of grass and alfalfa could work for your operation, you could consider inter-seeding annual or perennial grasses to improve yield.

Tony Nye is the state coordinator for the Ohio State University Extension Small Farm Program and has been an OSU Extension Educator for agriculture and natural resources for 29 years, currently serving Clinton County and the Miami Valley EERA.


Tony Nye

OSU Extension