The winter of 2014 will be recorded as one of the coldest in Alabama’s history, leaving lasting memories for those who experienced it.
In late January, snow and ice created a transportation meltdown in Birmingham. A rare phenomenon of ice-covered beaches is a scene Gulf Coast residents won’t soon forget.
A second cold spell in early February blanketed north Alabama, and some areas received more than six inches of snow. Alabama’s farmers worked overtime to handle unique challenges of sub-freezing temperatures and wintry precipitation. Montgomery County farmer Stacey Nestor said extra feed for livestock gives animals energy needed to withstand the cold. “In this kind of weather, we’re checking cows more often,” said Nestor, whose family has about 150 cows and a small herd of show-quality Boer goats. “At least our goats have shelter to get in from the wind.”
On a particularly cold day in January, Nestor’s mother, Amy Boyd, drove the truck as Nestor and her daughter, Melissa, poured feed to hungry cows.
Conecuh County farmer Chip Stacey said cool season grazing planted for his cattle suffered this winter.
“It looks bad,” he said. “It looks real bad. I don’t have a blade of grass I can graze yet because of the cold.”
Ryegrass he planted with a grain drill is barely visible, and what is there has turned brown and purple, Stacey said.
Row-crop farmers who planted wheat and oats said severe cold over long periods could damage their crops.
“For most farmers, wheat is still in a dormant stage,” said Alabama Farmers Federation Wheat & Feed Grains Division Director Carla Hornady. “However, some of our producers have reported discoloration in the plants, which could mean the crop has suffered from below-freezing temperatures.”
While snow-covered fields provided hours of entertainment for his grandchildren, Limestone County farmer Paul Looney said he is still optimistic about his wheat and canola crop.
“We’re in a wait and see position with our winter crops,” said Looney, who farms 1,000 acres of wheat and 500 acres of Canola with his son, Ben. “I think our wheat will just be late. We might not make a 100-bushel crop, but it should make a good yield if we take care of it.”
Looney said this year will be a learning experience with canola because it’s the first time in his four years of experience with the crop that snow has fallen.
“We’ve never had this kind of weather with canola,” he said. “If it will survive this, I think we will have found a very valuable crop for north Alabama.”
The weather has been a mixed bag for fruit and citrus farmers. Peach trees actually need cold weather to acquire a certain number of dormant “chill hours.”
“Depending on variety and location, a peach tree needs about 900 hours of temperatures below 45 degrees,” said Federation Horticulture Director Mac Higginbotham. “As of Feb. 12, the Chilton Research and Extension Center reported 1,170 chill hours for this fall and winter. Last year, peach trees only got about 750 chill hours.”
South Alabama’s citrus farmers were hit hard by the cold. Water sprayed on trees in the freezing weather created a protective layer of ice that kept most of the satsuma trees from dying on Art Sessions’ Mobile County farm. Other farms weren’t as fortunate.
“There are a lot of dead (citrus) trees in Mobile County,” Sessions said. “We may have lost 10-20 percent of our trees, and we’re probably going to loose a crop year. Some farms lost more than 50 percent of their trees.”
Sessions said satsuma are the most hardy citrus trees. Naval orange and lemon trees had severe damage, he added, and orchards north of Mobile were hit the hardest. Spring officially starts March 20.