November 29, 2021

Mild winter a mixed bag

Moderate weather has pros, cons for farmers, aquifer

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Horses feed Wednesday on Clark Street Extension in Groton.

Week one: snow, rain, frigid temperatures and the grounds freeze. Week two: balmy temperatures, less precipitation and the ground thaws.


Repeat it again.

And again.

That’s the cycle Cortland County and most of New York has seen since about mid-December. It affects both farmers and the aquifer, from which county residents get their water.

“The reality from a farmer’s perspective is there is no norm anymore and so we expect the unexpected,” said Amanda Barber, the district manager for the Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District. “We expect a great deal of variability.”

In December, snowfall was a bit above average — 20.1 inches, compared to the typical 17.8 inches, said National Weather Service Meteorologist Adam Gill. But this month the snowfall tapered off with only 12.6 inches, down from the typical 22 inches.

“With not really any chances of snow through the end of the month,” Gill said.

It’s not just the snowfall either that’s been off, temperatures have been, too. The average temperature in December was just a half-degree above normal, but this month saw temperatures seven degrees higher than average, 29.1 compared to 22.1.

“Currently, we’re seeing roughly once a week getting up into the 40s,” Gill said Wednesday. “It’s been pretty mild really since mid-December. There’s still a couple months left so it could change.”

However, that change won’t come in the next five to seven days, Gill said, noting there’s no significant cold weather or storms in the forecast. The forecast for the next several days calls for highs in the mid-30s to the 40s, with a chance of rain and snow showers.

For farmers, this means a constant game of chance. Higher temperatures mean animals need less feed to stay warm, and letting the animals roam outside. But it could also cause farmers to kick on the fans in barns or stables to keep animals from getting too hot.

That’s right: too hot.

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Horses fill pastures on a farm on Kinney Gulf Road in Cortlandville. An unusually mild winter has meant farmers can put their livestock in the field more often, and even have to turn on fans to keep them cool.

It’s not just the animals affected either; crops could be too.

“With sort of this constant freeze then thaw kind of a situation, there’s the potential for more damage to some of our perennial crops, there’s less protection without the snow packed on top of it,” Barber said, noting hay could be susceptible.

However, bare fields — not that they’re bare now — mean farmers can spread manure, fertilizing them.

“From a management perspective, there’s an advantage to that,” she said.

But that comes with cons, too.

“Downside is we still have the potential for runoff concerns associated with that,” she said.

The other downside is for the potential of leaching nutrients when there is too much water in the soil, meaning farmers might need to use more manure or fertilizer in the spring — an increased cost.

“The goal is to always keep those nutrients, the best we can, in the soil and available for the next crop,” Barber said.

Nutrients in the runoff could leach into the aquifer that supplies most of Cortland County. However, even if more nutrients flow into the water stream, Barber said it’s nothing to be concerned about.

“I would not expect any health impacts associated with that,” she said. “There can be. If over time we have sustained longterm increases in nutrient levels, particularly nitrate in ground water, it could be a public health concern. However, our nitrate levels are not at any level that poses a current risk nor do we expect them to be.”

The good news is that because it hasn’t been very snowy, it is likely less salt has been needed for the roads, meaning when the snow does melt the water draining into the ground has less salt — a plus for the aquifer, Barber said.