This winter will be near normal--and that means colder weather ahead, a University of Missouri climatologist told farmers at the annual MU Crop Management Conference.

"The last three winters have been among the 10 warmest winters in the 106 years that weather records have been kept for Missouri," said Pat Guinan with the Extension Commercial Agriculture Program.

"Here in Columbia, during the past three winters, we have had only four days--total--that were below zero," Guinan said. On average, six days of below zero weather are recorded each year at Columbia.

"That is an incredible record," he added.

But, Guinan expects the streak of warm winters to end. The below--average temperature for November is an indicator of what is to come.

Guinan described the weather in the decade of the 1990s as "mostly benign." He credits that to the influence of El Niño and La Niña phenomena sea surface temperatures are either above or below normal, respectively, in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.

"That ocean temperature is now neutral," Guinan said. In the past, that "neutral" phase has brought more "roller coaster" weather to the Midwest.

With the return of a "normal winter" as forecast by the U.S. Weather Bureau, Guinan expects to see more cold spells this winter. However, they will be followed by warm spells.

"I will not be surprised to see a January thaw," he said.

Four winters in the past decade have been among the 10 warmest, since weather records were started, Guinan said. The winter of 2000 was third warmest on record, 1999 was sixth warmest; 1998, fourth; and 1992, second.

The MU crop management conference provides updates on insects, weeds, diseases and other crop pests for farmers and certified crop advisors from across the state. Some 250 enrolled in the training this year.

In the opening session, Michael Boyd, Extension entomologist at the MU Delta Center, Portageville, Mo., said the mild winters have allowed an increase in overwintering insect pests. Insects normally seen further south showed up on Bootheel crops last summer, he said.

The good news, he added, is that beneficial insects that prey on the pests also had higher winter survival rates. The insect predators helped keep some of the pest outbreaks in check, he said.

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