The weather forecast for this fall and winter should be good news for Southeastern wheat producers, since the La Niña conditions that are expected usually are favorable for winter grain crops such as wheat, oats and rye.

“La Niña brings warmer than normal winter temperatures, so we’ll get fewer chill hours this winter,” says David Zierden, the state climatologist of Florida and an associate in research at Florida State University’s Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies.

“Historically, wheat yields tend to be better in times of La Niña,” said Zierden at the recent Central and South Alabama Wheat Expo held in Montgomery, Ala.

The Southeast Climate Consortium, of which FSU is a member, has issued a La Niña watch, meaning it is more likely than not that La Niña will redevelop in the Pacific Ocean in the next one to three months, he says.

La Niña, explains Zierden, refers to a state of the tropical Pacific Ocean in which surface temperatures along the equator from South America to the central Pacific turn colder than normal.

La Niña can be thought of as the opposite of El Niño, in which the same area of the Pacific is much warmer than normal.

“La Niña typically brings fall and winter weather patterns to parts of the Southeast that are warmer and drier than normal,” he says.

“Historically, the peninsula of Florida averages rainfall 40 percent to 60 percent below normal in the months of November through March during La Niña events.

“Temperatures over the entire area average 3 to 4 degrees warmer than normal. The onset of warm and dry conditions normally begins in September, and the pattern intensifies as the season progresses.”

This past year was a good one, he says, for wheat yields and grain quality.

“We started off last winter very cold,” says Zierden. “Florida and south Georgia ranked as the coldest December on record since 1895, and it was among the coldest on record for the remainder of the Southeast. Along with colder temperatures, we accumulated chill hours at a much higher rate than normal.”

Later in the season, in March and April, the Southern U.S. was warmer than normal, he says.

“So we were accumulating growing-degree days at a critical time when the crop needed it. But from last October through July, rainfall in south Georgia and south Alabama were running at 50 to 75 percent of normal. However, the wheat crop had enough moisture in the soil to work with,” says Zierden.

Crops in parts of the Southeast were already suffering from extremely dry and hot conditions earlier this summer.

The three-month period of April through June was the driest on record since 1895 for the western Florida Panhandle and southern Georgia, while June ranked as one of the warmest on record.

Last year, says Zierden, the Pacific Ocean slipped into one of the strongest La Niñas on record and this was a key trigger for the development of drought in Florida and the Southeast as well as unprecedented drought in Texas and Oklahoma.