Ag Weather Forum

Big Difference in February Temps

Bryce Anderson
By  Bryce Anderson , Ag Meteorologist Emeritus
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February 2021 temperatures, as much as 15 degrees Fahrenheit below normal, are completely opposite the 10-degree F above normal in February 2012. (High Plains Climate Center graphic)

At least some conversation regarding the upcoming 2021 crop season has offered some reference to the very dry year of 2012. Most if not all agricultural memories have that year set in cortex concrete.

We'll get back to that. First, a reminder about 2012. The year 2012 culminated a three-year run of below trendline crop yields. In corn, the U.S. average yield went from a then-record 165 bushels per acre (bpa) in 2009 to 151 bpa in 2010; 147 bpa in 2011; and then the plunge to 123.4 bpa in 2012. The strongest La Nina event in the Pacific Ocean in 60 years was a key contributor to the weather pattern that adversely affected crops.

The mid- to late-summer Midwest drought of 2020 has primed the pump of conjecture and concern regarding the 2021 crop season. It's a justifiable worry. After all, there are millions of acres in some phase of drought right now. But whether this year is one that hearkens back to 2012 or to one of its associates in that triad of subpar yields is a question worth considering. Certainly temperatures in February do not offer much of a resemblance.

February 2012 saw temperatures across the Midwest reach as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit or even a bit more above normal. This occurrence set the stage for the once-in-a-farming-career tale for more than one producer -- the story of planting corn in March. That was the result of consistent widespread warming of soils to the point that germination thresholds were reached well before the Easter weekend of April 6-8. With that set of conditions, the planters hit the field.

Jump ahead now to February 2021, and the circumstances are a complete polar (vortex) opposite. Midwest temperatures in the first half of February are running from 12 to 15 degrees F below normal in the western two-thirds of the Midwest. And, those low temperatures are also being logged with a pretty thick snow cover. The record cold that has spread throughout the interior U.S. has some moderation in the forecast through the end of the week, but there is not a complete switch in the trend to much more than seasonal values. In other words, late-winter temperatures as opposed to a sudden surge to the spring season.

A detail in the current state of affairs across the central U.S. is that spring fieldwork and planting may, in a reversal of the 2012 situation, be slower to get underway in 2021. That keeps some anxiety around in thinking about crop vulnerability due to later planting dates. But, a colder pattern now and into early spring also hinders the beginning of the growth phase for other vegetation including grasses and weeds. A later start for these plants means a later onset of their root systems extracting soil moisture. In addition, there is also a little bit more time for late winter or early spring to provide some more moisture in the form of either rain or snow systems. That would be another difference -- and a key one -- between 2021 and 2012.

Bryce Anderson can be reached at

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