OMAHA (DTN) -- El Nino remains intact and is the dominant weather forecast feature through spring 2016, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasters. Its presence suggests an early start to the spring field work season in the Corn Belt.
El Nino is the term used to describe a large-scale warming of the equatorial Pacific waters, along with an atmospheric circulation that results in sustained west-to-east low-latitude jet stream winds. The current El Nino "is among the three strongest" over the past 60 years, Michigan state climatologist Jeff Andresen said. "The current event is near its peak, with a gradual weakening to neutral by summer, and some forecasts call for a cool Pacific (La Nina) by next winter," Andresen said.
Following a fall season that brought abnormally mild temperatures and mostly above-normal precipitation to the central U.S. region, Andresen outlined a beneficial spring forecast for agriculture. The framework includes a likely continuation of above-normal temperatures through the winter and into the spring. Coinciding with the mild temperatures, central region forecasts also point to a drier-than-normal trend through much of the rest of the winter and into spring.
Collectively, the forecasts suggest an earlier-than-normal start to the growing season. "I've already had some growers asking about the potential for switching corn hybrids to longer-season maturities," Andresen said.
The El Nino-influenced forecast also points to a reduced threat of cold-weather injury to overwintering crops in 2016. "This would be a big benefit to fruits and grapes after the last two very cold winters," Andresen said.
If that drier trend does indeed develop in the spring, recent heavy rain in the Midwest will be looked at as a beneficial event for soil moisture, in the opinion of DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Mike Palmerino.
"I know that there has been some flooding and standing water now, but with the general trend of El Nino being a dry weather-producer in spring, I'd think producers would look at the moisture from these rains as money in the bank," Palmerino said.
Meanwhile, recent heavy rain and snow has brought improvement in drought conditions in the Pacific Northwest, with a full two-category change from "exceptional" to "severe" in the state of Washington. CPC forecaster Stephen Baxter anticipates that similar benefit will develop this winter in California as well. Heaviest amounts of El Nino-related precipitation usually occur in California after the first of the year.
"I do think it's fair to say that parts of that region with D4 (exceptional drought) could see two-category improvement," Baxter said.
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