How Will Warm Winter Weather Affect Crops?

Feb 23, 2016

The end of the meteorological winter is approaching, which runs from the first of December to the end of February.

This season was the fifth warmest winter that Fort Wayne ever recorded, with the average temperature above freezing during all three months. December's average temperature was the highest recorded in Fort Wayne.

A mild winter can be good for seasonal crops like wheat, alfalfa and hay, but a warm winter can also have a negative impact. Farmers might have to deal with more weeds, and bugs like the armyworm and the corn earworm pose a threat to crops.

Kevin Geeting is the head winemaker at Country Heritage.
Credit Courtesy/Country Heritage

For vineyards like Country Heritage in LaOtto, a mild winter can present both good and bad results. Kevin Geeting, the head winemaker at Country Heritage, says low temperatures in past winters caused a lot of damage to the grapes.

“A couple of our varieties that took it so hard that we had more than 50 percent vine kill,” he said. “It pretty much killed everything that was above the ground, and we had to start all over and start retraining them back up.”

But while warm weather is good for the crop, it could cause damage later on.

“The only thing that would hurt us now is if we have a drastic warmup and a drastic freeze,” Geeting said. “We don’t want that.”

"Mother Nature decides when it's time, and you are at the mercy of Mother Nature."

If that happens, the vines might start “waking up” too soon, as Geeting calls it. A frost at that stage could cause significant damage to the vines.

Geeting says one of the most difficult parts about growing grapes for wine--especially in the Midwest--is the lack of control over when the vines start to bud.

“Mother Nature decides when it’s time, and you are at the mercy of Mother Nature,” he said.

A warmer winter could also mean more bugs, which could also threaten grape crops, but Geeting says disease is a bigger issue.

“But we spray, for disease and for bugs, so that’s just something that we monitor,” he said. “Obviously, we would love to not have to spray at all or spray very little.”

James Wolff is the agriculture educator for the Purdue Extension in Allen County, and he’s not very worried about the warm winter. He says farmers could start planting sooner, and crops like corn and soybeans could benefit. He says as long as there’s no frost after a warmup, the crops should be fine.

“It could reach maturity a little sooner than a normal year because it gets started growing sooner,” Wolff said. “It’s going to be able to grow a lot more before it reaches that maturity, giving us more yield.”

Farmers will start to plant corn in mid-to late-April, and soybeans will be planted in May.

And as for the grapes at Country Heritage, Geeting says they’ll start pruning in a couple weeks.

“You have to prune because that will, you’re pruning for the crop for that given year, so depending on how many buds I want to keep, each one of these buds will be a shoot that will come out and we’ll have grape clusters on it,” he said. “Essentially about 80 percent of this grape vine will be pruned back.”

They usually prune sometime in March. Last year, workers remember wearing sweatshirts and hats. And this year? They’ll have to wait and see.