Preparing for an El Niño Winter

Preparing for an El Niño Winter

Farmers in the Western Panhandle are in agreement — dry weather is needed to get the crops out to gins and buying points.  Currently, climatologists are predicting a 62% chance of experiencing El Niño conditions for the next 3 months.

What does that mean to a farmer in Northwest Florida? 

According to the fact-sheet  El Niño, La Niña and Climate Impacts on Agriculture: Southeastern U.S., these are potential issues:

  • Harvests of summer crops such as corn, peanuts, and cotton may be delayed because of increased rains in the fall.
  • Frequent rains may reduce tilling and yield of winter wheat.
  • Wheat yields in southern AL and GA are generally higher than average during El Niño.
  • Frequent rains at the end of August and in early September may increase Hessian fly populations on winter wheat.
  • Susceptible and moderate peanut cultivars have higher intensity of tomato spotted wilt virus.
  • Yields of winter vegetables such as tomatoes, bell peppers, sweet corn, and snap beans are lower.
  • Fungal and bacterial diseases, especially bacterial spot of tomato and bell peppers, present higher risks.
  • Winter pasture crops may benefit from wetter weather, but planting and harvesting operations may be affected by heavy rainfall.
  • Growers may have to reduce the dormancy compensating sprays to temperature fruits, such as peach, nectarine, blueberry, and strawberry because of increases in chill accumulation.
  • Strawberry growth is slower than normal. Risk of fungal diseases such as anthracnose, botrytis fruit rot, and angular leaf spot is higher.
  • This may very well be a good year to plant winter forage and cover crops because they are predicting enough moisture to get fields established.  To learn more about the benefits of utilizing cover crops to mitigate risk, please see this publication about high residue cover crops.

Cereal rye cover crop rolling/crimping in late March 2011 at Brock Farm in Monticello, Florida. Custom roller/crimper design and fabrication by Kirk Brock.

Financial Assistance for Farmers Who Implement BMPs

Financial Assistance for Farmers Who Implement BMPs

Producers in the Florida Panhandle can receive financial assistance from multiple agencies to defer the cost of implementing Best Management Practices on-farm, such as improving irrigation efficiency. Photo credit: Ethan Carter.


Farmers and ranchers have implemented Best Management Practices (BMPs) that maintain or improve water quality, quantity and soil conditions on their lands for many years. Although BMPs are designed to be technically feasible and economically viable, implementing BMPs can be expensive for producers, and some practices may not be financially viable for all. Multiple agencies in our region recognize this and offer financial assistance to defer the cost of implementing BMPs.

In most areas of the Panhandle, implementation of BMPs is still voluntary, but for producers in an area with a Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP), such as the Jackson Blue Springs/Merritts Mill Pond Basin, BMP implementation and verification is required.

Financial Assistance to Implement BMPs

The following agencies continually offer financial assistance for producers in our region to implement agricultural BMPs.

USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)

NRCS offers financial assistance for farmers through two programs: the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Staff at NRCS work with farmers and ranchers to develop a conservation plan to address particular on-farm resource concerns. Depending on the objectives of the farmer, these plans can include ways to reduce erosion and improve soil conditions, improve nutrient management and water quality, increase water-use efficiency and/or improve wildlife habitat.

The conservation plan outlines activities or practices to reach these objectives and NRCS will provide technical and financial assistance to help carry out these practices.  For example, NRCS will provide financial assistance for exclusion fences for cattle around streams or wetlands as well as assistance for alternative watering systems, such as watering tanks, pipelines and solar wells. Other examples of what they help finance include cross-fencing for improved grazing management, soil sampling for improved nutrient management, irrigation retrofits, waste storage facilities for dairies, tree planting and forest stand improvement, and nesting boxes for wildlife. These are just a few examples – there are many more!

Financial assistance is provided at a flat rate for a particular practice (for example, per foot for fencing, per acre for weed treatment, per item for a well or a nesting box, etc.). In general, they do not offer financial assistance to purchase equipment.

Contact information:

For more information on available NRCS funding and how to apply, contact your local NRCS office. In the Panhandle, these contacts are found on the Florida Area 1 Directory.   Applications for financial assistance are accepted year-round with batching deadlines in November.

Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS)

FDACS also offers cost-share funds to producers so that they can effectively implement BMPs on-farm. Unlike NRCS, funding is largely (but not exclusively) for equipment purchases. They will fund up to 75% of the cost of equipment, which they then reimburse the producer once an item is purchased.

Funding falls under three broad BMP categories: (1) nutrient management, (2) irrigation management and (3) water resources protection. Examples of equipment and other items that FDACS will cost share include no-till grain drills and GPS guidance systems to reduce soil loss and improve nutrient management. To improve irrigation efficiency they provide funding for irrigation retrofits, nozzle packages, smart irrigation control panels and soil moisture sensors. To protect water resources, they, like NRCS, provide financial assistance for cattle exclusion fences and solar wells so ranchers can have alternative water sources for their animals.  These are just a few examples of the equipment that can be purchased through the FDACS  cost-share program.  It is important for producers to work with their local FDACS field technician to determine which BMP practices are feasible on their operation. To receive cost-share funds, producers have to have been in production for at least one year and they must be enrolled in the BMP Program.

Contact information:

Contact your local FDACS field technician for more information on available cost-share funding and how to apply. Applications are accepted year-round.

The Northwest Florida Water Management District (NWFWMD)

The NWFWMD’s cost-share program for producers is focused on improving water quality and increasing water-use efficiency in the Jackson Blue Springs Basin. To be eligible for funding, farming operations have to be located within the spring basin and producers must be enrolled in the FDACS BMP Program. Under the current BMP grant program, the district is accepting cost-share applications year-round, through September 2019.

Funding is available to cost share up to 75% of BMPs such as irrigation system retrofits, pump upgrades (high to low pressure), remote control systems for irrigation, control panel upgrades, endgun controls, fertigation systems, and other precision agriculture tools.

Contact information:

For more information about the NWFWMD’s cost share program, please contact Linda Chaisson by phone at (850) 539-5999 or by email at To find out if your farming operation falls within the Jackson Blue Springs Basin, the district’s BMP website provides links to a street view map and an aerial view map of the basin, as well as additional information about the BMP program.

The three agencies listed above are not the only entities offering financial assistance for BMP implementation in our region. Interested producers can also receive cost-share funds from the FDACS’s Office of Energy to improve energy efficiency on-farm. Other organizations may also receive grants to help producers defer the costs of BMPs, and as we at UF/IFAS Extension hear about these opportunities, we will work to get that information out to you.


Field Report:  Sick Oats in the Panhandle

Field Report: Sick Oats in the Panhandle

Ethan Carter, Crop IPM Regional Agent and Ann Blount, UF/IFAS Forage Breeder

Crop aftershocks related to last week’s weather conditions (cold, overcast, and wet) were felt this week across in the Florida Panhandle. Growers reported a variety of symptoms in their oat fields, ranging from what appeared to be viral discoloration, fungal diseases, and cold damage. It is important for growers to scout fields and be aware of issues early on, rather than waiting until the problem becomes catastrophic.

The recent cold snap has raised concerns in young plants. Areas in a field that were already stunted or lacking fertility, may turn yellow or white from cold damage, not to be confused with Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus which causes similar discoloration, with additional red and orange leaves, and stunting. Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus is vectored by aphids, which are often found in high populations of infected fields. Aphids contract the virus by feeding on infected plants and they transmit the virus to new plants while feeding. Once plants are infected, there is no cure for the virus. Even additional nitrogen applications or insecticides will not help overcome the virus.

Crown rust (Puccinia coronata), a fungal disease easily identified by the production of bright orange-yellow pustules on the plants has been found in several oat fields in the area. If you are unsure that what you are seeing is rust, wipe the infected tissue to see if the spores smear on contact, or check your pants legs for orange powder, after walking through an infected area of field. In the past two weeks, it has been confirmed in oat fields in Holmes, Gadsden and Jackson Counties. Late last week it also surfaced in the 2016-2017 Cool Season Forage Demonstration Plots in Washington County. The only commercial oat variety currently resistant to rust is Legend 567 (marketed by Mayo Fertilizer).

Rust on oats. Photo Credit: Ethan Carter

Leaf blotch, more commonly known as Helminthosporium or Bipolaris has also been found. This fungal disease is usually associated with poor plant health from stress, often from potash (K) deficiency. It is identified by black spots that form on the plant leaves, sometimes with a tan dot in the center of the infected area.

Leaf Blotch – Helminthosporium or Bipolaris on oats. Photo Credit: Ethan Carter

Management decisions for these issues vary based on the disorder and also the purpose of the oats:

  • If desired for forage use, fungal infestations such as rust and Helminthosporium can be grazed off. The fungal spores pose no danger to livestock, but remember excessive grazing will stunt or even kill out the oats. Once grazed down, livestock should be removed, so the field can grow back.
  • When growing oats for seed, silage, or haylage fungicides are the best option. Left untreated, rust can decimate an oat field in a matter of weeks. Helminthosporium can also reduce yields, depending on the severity of the disease.
  • If fertility is in question, soil samples should be pulled to run diagnostics and determine if any essential nutrients should be applied. When Helminthosporium is often found, K deficiency should be evaluated.
  • The best management tactics for Barley Yellow Dwarf and rust prevention is later planting. When the weather is generally cooler aphid reproduction and movement slows down. Rust outbreaks are worse when the disease gets started in early plantings. Rust resistant cultivars are limited on the commercial market, but would save considerable cost by eliminating the need for fungicide applications. Unfortunately this year, with a very warm fall and winter, aphid populations were high. Grazing small grains with heavy aphid populations to reduce their numbers is another approach, as insecticides are not commonly applied in pasture situations. When growing a grain crop for seed, silage or haylage, insecticide applications may be necessary, however this control may not be cost effective.


Cover Crop Mixture Considerations for 2017

Cover Crop Mixture Considerations for 2017



Mixture of sunn hemp and monster forage sorghum as a cover crop in Escambia County. Photo: Libbie Johnson


Mixture of sunn hemp and monster forage sorghum as a cover crop in Escambia County. Photo: Libbie Johnson

As dry as this Fall has been, planting cover crops has not been a priority or an option for many producers in the Florida Panhandle. One Escambia County grower planted an interesting cover crop mixture that has garnered a lot of attention locally this summer. Following his corn crop, he planted a mixture of sunn hemp and monster forage sorghum. Sunn hemp is a good option for those that plant corn or a fruit crop like watermelon or cantaloupe because it germinates and grows very quickly during the heat of late summer. This leguminous plant can grow to over 6 ft tall, providing a quantity of organic matter and nitrogen for our soils. The UF/IFAS Sunn hemp publication states that “Via atmospheric nitrogen fixation, sunn hemp may accumulate more than 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre. This crop also adds 2.5 to 4 tons of organic matter when incorporated into the soil.” Sunn hemp has also been touted for its ability to draw down nematode populations. Who wouldn’t benefit from growing this cover crop?

The Escambia County farmer likes to plant mixes.  This year, he added Monster Forage Sorghum with the sunn hemp. In some parts of the country, forage sorghum is grown for silage instead of corn. Penn State’s publication, “Forage Sorghum” states “forage sorghum is closely related to grain sorghum, broomcorn, sorghum-sudangrass, and sudangrass. Forage sorghum is best adapted to warm regions and is particularly noted for its drought tolerance compared to corn.” There could’ve been no better year to plant this crop. When it was coming up, it looked like volunteer corn, but it kept growing and has put on seedheads despite this Fall drought. The publication goes on to say that this fast growing crop shades out weeds and has few pests.  Co-planting the forage sorghum with the sunn hemp is an ideal mixture, and the drought hasn’t seemed to slow down the growth.  You can’t tell by the photos, but the sunn hemp is at least 5 foot tall, and the forage sorghum is more than 6 foot tall.

Why should you consider planting cover crops?

According to the UF/IFAS publication Cover Crops, there are at least eight reasons:

  1. To control weeds since cover crops compete for light, water and nutrients
  2. To prevent soil losses associated with heavy rainfall (soil water erosion)
  3. To reduce soil losses due to strong winds (e.g. prevent soil wind erosion and a potential “dust bowl”) and to protect more sensitive crops such as watermelon from sand blasting damage
  4. To scavenge and retain nutrients that otherwise might be lost in water runoff or by leaching during the off-season. This helps reduce fertilizer costs for future crops and also protects the environment from problems caused by excess nutrient loading in our water sheds
  5. To reduce populations of certain soil pathogenic nematodes
  6. To generate supplemental income (e.g. via hay production)
  7. To form a suitable mulch cover for row middles and/or mulched beds
  8. To provide habitat for beneficial birds and insects.

Fall 2016 has been a bust for those who wanted to planted cover crops, but growers shouldn’t limit themselves to just winter plantings. There are options year round. Review the table below and think about what you might work best as a cover crop mixture for your fields in 2017.


Crop Yield – Biomass1 (lbs/acre) Yield – N1


Seeding Rate(lbs/acre) Seeding Date
Leguminous Crops
Aeschynomene 2000 – 4000 50-100 6-82 Mar. 1 – June 30
Alyce clover 1500-3500 20-65 15-20 Mid April to late June
Cowpeas 4000 – 6000 50-90 6-82 April to August
Hairy Indigo 7 to 10 tons of


80-150 6 – 10 Middle of March to


Sesbania 2000-8000 35-80 25-30 Mar. 1 – July 15
Sunhemp 4500-10,000 90-180 30 – 50 Mar. 1 – June 30
Velvetbeans 2200 – 4000 50-85 30-50 Mar. 1 – June 30
Grain Crops
Pearlmillet 6000-8000 55-70 12 to 15 lb/acre in rows,

of 30 to 40 lbs/acre if broadcast

Mid March to June

in North Florida, earliest planting is April 1st.

Sorghum-sudan 6500-9500 55-80 24-30 Mar. 1 – June 30
Leguminous Cropos
Crimson Clover 1500-5000 35-120 20-25 Oct. 1 – Nov. 15
Hairy Vetch 2000-4000 35-150 20-30 Oct. 1 – Nov. 15
Lupine 2000-4500 45-120 30-45 Oct. 1 – Nov. 15
Grain crops
Black oats 1500-3500 20-40 80-100 Oct. 1 – Nov. 15
Winter rye 3000-6000 30-50 80-100 Oct. 15 – Nov. 15
Leguminous Crops
Rhizoma Peanut (living mulch) 2000-10000


50-130 80-100bu of rhizomes/acre3

(1 bu=1.25 cubic ft.)

Dec. to March
Perennial Grasses
Bahiagrass 3000-8000 55-140 15-20 Junt to August

(if rainfed)

Pangola digitgrass 4000-9000 60-135 500-10003 Mar. 1 – Aug. 15
1Lower productivity reflects poor growing conditions (water stress, poor inherent soil poor inherent soil fertility/inoculation) while higher values are indicative of crop performance under optimal conditions.

2Dehulled seed (naked).

3Planted vegetatively.


More Grazing Dishes for the Summer Salad Bar

More Grazing Dishes for the Summer Salad Bar

 Figure 1. Jed Dillard, Jerfforson county Extension kneels in a pasture of Tifleaf 3 millet and cowpeas that awere no-till drilled into ryegrass and red clover.

Figure 1. Jed Dillard, Jerfforson county Extension kneels in a pasture of Tifleaf 3 millet and cowpeas that were no-till drilled into ryegrass and red clover.

We’ve heard “North Florida can grow forage 365 days a year!” for ages, and that’s true. However, those of us who’ve carried livestock through more than one winter with our own money, or worse, a bank’s money, know that it’s just not that simple. The long-time goal of getting grazing from fall seeded winter annuals by Thanksgiving seems as elusive as Bigfoot in many years. Records from state climatologist, Dr. Dave Zierden, show May has become increasingly dry over the years

Typical forage programs are based on Bermuda or Bahia grasses and some type of winter supplement such as hay, commodity feeds, protein feeds, or winter annuals. Of course costs vary, and each operation has a unique set of resources, requirements and opportunities. Use your head and your pencil to decide what works best for your situation.

One of the more common strategies is to graze winter annuals as protein and energy supplements, either on a prepared seedbed or overseeded on permanent pastures. Prepared seed beds work best for cereal grains (Oats, rye, triticale, wheat), and clovers and ryegrass are preferred for overseeding. However, clover and ryegrass can be also combined effectively with cereal grains to extend the grazing season on prepared land.

Generally, grazing crops on prepared land is converted to cash crops in the spring. Corn ground goes first, followed by peanuts and cotton. Soybeans and sorghum can go in early or late.  If row crops aren’t in the immediate future for your land, what are your options as the days warm and dry weather hits you in May? I’ve seen a variety of options recently. Take a look and see if these might work for you, especially as you plan for next year

Clover Mixtures

Take advantage of the complementary growth periods of clover and other cool season legume varieties. The peak production begins with common vetch followed generally by crimson clover, ball clover, hairy vetch, arrow leaf clover, red clover and white clover. All these can be broadcast into dormant or short permanent pasture. Figure 2. shows a mixture of legumes that were broadcast into Bahiagrass that already had ryegrass and crimson clover reseeding in it. The mixture includes, common vetch, hairy vetch, arrow leaf clover and Osceola white clover; the photo was taken in mid-May. The white and arrow leaf clover and white clover are still going today, and red clover would have extended the blend even further.

Figure 2. A broadcast mix of legumes in Mid-May Photo Credit: Jed Dillard

Figure 2. A broadcast mix of legumes in Mid-May
Photo Credit: Jed Dillard


The bane of row crop farmers and a primary source of income for the lawn pesticide industry, crabgrass fills one of our grazing gaps as winter annuals play out on prepared seedbeds. It can last into August with decent rainfall and fertility. It’s a high quality forage and frequently is already a part of the seed bank in many North Florida fields. Improved varieties of crabgrass are available. Hay growers won’t want it as it doesn’t dry at the same rate as Bermuda, but grazers should capitalize on the opportunity.  Clovers and crabgrass are the simplest options to implement for the May – July window, but overseeding with a no-till drill opens up several more options on winter annuals that were planted on prepared land.

Figure 3. Tifleaf 3 Millet emerging in Oats and Clover in Late April Photo Credit: Jed Dillard

Figure 3. Tifleaf 3 Millet emerging in Oats and Clover in Late April
Photo Credit: Jed Dillard

No Till Annuals

Pearl millet is the most common summer annual in our area, and the photos show two approaches. Figure 3. shows millet coming up in oats and clover in late April. This approach provides continuous availability of high quality forage, but requires the ability to use grazing to manage the competition between the two plantings. Close grazing of the growing crop allows the emergence of the millet. After emergence and during the transition to millet grazing, management must find the balance between allowing the millet enough light and grazing the millet too hard, too soon.  Figure 4. was taken in early June shows a field of Southern Bell red clover with Tifleaf 3 millet and iron clay peas no tilled into it. With proper grazing management, this mix can last into late summer.  These options run the gamut from requiring hardly any equipment to the use of high dollar no till drills, and you need to make your own financial decisions based on your own financial situation.

Figure 4. Allen Skinner, Suwanee Co.

Figure 4. Allen Skinner, Suwannee County in millet, cow peas and red clover in early June. Photo Credit: Joel Love

As you examine your situation think of these questions:

  • Does a no till drill cost more than a hay baler, cutter, rake and fluffer?
  • How many times would you need to go over your land per year with a no till drill versus a hay baler, cutter, etc.?
  • Would I rather my livestock harvest my forage, or would I rather cut, rake and bale it, haul it to the barn and then haul it back to my livestock?
  • Would I rather grow more of my nitrogen with legumes or buy it?

Growing forage 365 days a year? Check. Growing good forage economically 365 days a year? More thinking, maybe more work, maybe more money. These aren’t easy production decisions, and they’re even more complicated economic decisions. For further information on variety selection, seeding options, and financial considerations contact your local Extension Agent and/or see the following related UF/IFAS Publications:


Weather Played a Major Role on Peanut Yields in 2015

Weather Played a Major Role on Peanut Yields in 2015

Peanut plots showing 50% White Mold Infestation. Photo by John Atkins

UF/IFAS Peanut fungicide trial untreated plots showing 50% White Mold Infestation. Photo by John Atkins

Peanut harvest is in full swing in the Florida Panhandle, but producers have had challenges to crop success in the form of disease and erratic weather this year.

White mold has been particularly troublesome this season.  On August 24th we dug and rated our University of Florida, IFAS peanut fungicide comparison plots here in Jay Florida, and some of the untreated plots had as much as 50% white mold.  Much of the high white mold levels were driven by the extremely warm temperatures we had this year coupled with the fact that many fields were planted peanuts behind peanuts.

In addition to high levels of white mold being influenced by the weather, the 2015 growing season in Santa Rosa County was hit or miss as far as rain events go. I don’t mean miss the rain one week and make up for it the next; all season long, many areas either got rain, or they did not. The decision to get the first peanuts out of fields was not based on maturity or a profile board, it was based on salvaging what they had before the plants died. Yields in these fields ranged 1,000 – 1,300 pounds per acre with a lot of seg 2’s and 3’s. Some fields in the dry areas were only harvested for forage.

Peanuts coming out of fields that were fortunate enough to receive rainfall, and did not remain for weeks in a wilted state, are yielding 2,500 – 4,500 pounds per acre. I know of one field that appeared to have never wilted that yielded 6,000 pounds per acre. One grower stated that his average farm yield was bumping 6,000 pounds per acre in 2014, but this year he is hopeful to be reach the 3,000 – 3,500 pound per acre range.

In reference to the weather what can we do?

Many of you remember the days of making it a point to be in front of the television at 5:00 pm to make sure you received an update of the weather forecast to aid in decision making, and cartoons only came on Saturday mornings. (Boy those were the good ole days!). These days we can get weather updates on our phones throughout the day.  But just in case you missed this:  [notice]The National Weather Service in Tallahassee Florida has issued a weather bulletin describing potential heavy rains next week from a low pressure developing in the Gulf of Mexico.  Producers should pay close attention, as these conditions may affect cotton and peanut harvest conditions over the next week. [/notice]

Peanut plots showing 50% White Mold Infestation. Photo by John Atkins

Weather forecasters are also reporting that we are entering into one of the strongest El Niño phases since the mid 1980’s.  Because of the intensity of this developing El Nino, forecasters are predicting that we are going to have a late, wet, and cooler fall and winter.  What does this mean for our crops, and what are some important considerations we need to start thinking about now?  We need to be timely in our harvest and we need to make sure we establish crops in a timely fashion.  Anticipate that if it remains cooler and wetter next spring, we may have increased problems with seedling diseases in our cotton. Will we be able to get into the fields in a timely manner?  Will our corn planting be timely with what we are doing?

Growers need to pay special attention to this year’s crops and make notes on various disease issues. Pay attention to the amount of white mold you had along with other diseases. Rely on extension service researched based non-biased recommendations to aid in management decisions for the 2016 crop year.


For more information, please see the following resource:

Super El Nino Poised to Disrupt Weather Patterns


Authors Note: This article was compiled from information from grower input, and from Dr. Bob Kemerait, UGA Extension Pathologist.