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Smoke may offer some unexpected shade to crops

With the smoke filled skies looming over many acres of crops, some producers may be pleasantly surprised how the smoke could be benefiting their fields this season.

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Daryl Ritchison, director of North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network, says this has been a big year for fires, but producers should not worry about the smoke impacting their crops. Photo taken Aug. 9, 2021 in Fargo, N.D. Emily Beal / Agweek
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While the lingering smoke that has been filling up much of the Upper Midwest’s sky may seem daunting to producers, it may be a welcomed change for crops that are still in the ground.

Due to the excessive heat and sunny days the region has been experiencing, many acres have been receiving more solar radiation than they can stand, given the lack of precipitation. The smoke filled skies offer somewhat of an umbrella from the sun’s powerful rays.

“This summer, we have had plenty of soil radiation because of the lack of cloud coverage. So in turn, these cloudy days associated with smoke, if anything cool the temperature down, which is a benefit this summer,” said Daryl Ritchison, director of North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network. “A 92-degree day might turn down to an 86.”

NDAWN is a network of around 170 weather stations scattered throughout the region, with stations in North Dakota, eastern Montana and Northwest Minnesota. The data gathered is used to run crop guidance tools for agriculturalists, but their data is widely used. They are also one of the largest soil moisture networks in the Upper Midwest.

“Crop wise, this summer has just been very sunny. So, smoke to me is more like a cloudy day. And so incoming solar radiation, in that sense on a day to day basis you might lose 30, 40, maybe 50 percent of your incoming solar radiation, but you lose even more on a cloudy day,” Ritchison said. “So in turn overall as a summer, we’re still getting more solar radiation than we do in most summers.”

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Agronomist Jason Hanson of Rock and Roll Agronomy is located in Webster, North Dakota, an area that has been experiencing smoke-filled air.

“There were days where you could smell it,” Hanson said. “One benefit of this is it has most likely kept the temperatures down. But when you get a lot of smoke, it has a tendency to make the plant not want to (respire). But this year it is most likely not an issue because we are so far ahead on heat units.”

According to Ritchison, the fires in Manitoba and Ontario were early in the season and the winds out of the northeast have pulled the smoke to our region. This wind pattern makes the smoke a much heavier presence in the region.

In terms of yields, the smoke is thought to do little to no damage. However, producers would be losing yields due to the smoke if it were a normal year in terms of precipitation. When the soil gets enough moisture, along with increased soil radiation, higher yields are to be expected. But, due to the drought-stricken soil in many acres of the region, that will not be an issue this growing season.

“I don’t think it is really impacting the crops or the yields,” Ritchison said. “And because we’re getting so much solar radiation anyway, it still comes down to me that the lack of moisture is what’s impacting the crops.”

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