Organic Broadcaster

Changing climate impacting agriculture, especially livestock production

By Kelli Boylen

“Thing are warming up,” said Bill Bland, University of Wisconsin Extension Soil and Water Conservation Specialist, during his workshop on climate and agriculture at the 2015 MOSES Conference. “Yes, some places are cooler some years, but overall things are warming up.”

Bland said there is often confusion between weather and climate, and some people tend to argue about global warming during really cold winters. He said the simple answer to that is, “Climate is what we expect, weather is what we actually get.” He further explained as the number of extreme weather events accumulate it create new climate.

Bland is based in Wisconsin, where he says the weather trends have followed global trends. From 1950 to 2006, the average year-round temperature increased 1 to 2 degrees. The last day of spring freeze now is 6-12 days earlier, and the date of the first frost in the fall is 3-18 days later.

“Humans are changing the Earth’s climate. That is well-understood and well-underway,” he added.

Although climate statistical models can make predictions on growing season length and average temperatures, the changes are not going to be uniform across all locations, especially when it comes to rainfall, Bland explained. Rainfall may increase by several inches in one region while an area 100 miles away will see a several-inch decrease.

Models are predicting that by mid-century the Upper Midwest will have up to four more inches of rain a year on average, and the Southern Midwest will have two to three inches less. By the end of the century the models show Wisconsin summers will be 5 to 7 degrees warmer. Growing seasons may increase or decrease in length by several days, depending upon location. Bland said he has “great confidence” in the models.

Winters will not necessarily be warmer in areas where it always snows, but Bland notes they will be “less cold.” He explained that although temperatures will still get chilly, it is likely there will be fewer nights with extreme low temperatures than in the past. The number of nights below zero has decreased two to 22 nights, depending on the area of the Wisconsin, he said.

Although the average temperature will likely be warmer than we have ever known, Bland said it’s the extremes of the weather that we are going to have to figure out how to manage.

He said what people now consider unthinkably hot in a given area will become more common, and that is a huge issue of animal welfare and public health.

Currently in the Upper Midwest, the “warmest day of the year” is usually in the mid-90s. By mid-century, the warmest day of the year in the Upper Midwest is expected to be in the high 90s. That can make a big difference for those raising livestock, Bland added.

Using the Cattle Comprehensive Climate Index, the impact variations of temperatures can be more readily understood when factoring in wind, relative humidity and solar radiation. To a beef steer on a feed lot, an overcast 95-degree day with 20 mile-an-hour winds and 50 percent relative humidity will feel like 89 degrees. A sunny 95-degree day with 2 mile-an-hour winds and 80 percent humidity will feel like 125 degrees to a steer.

At present in a typical summer, there may be just a few days that these temperature extremes cause issues in the Upper Midwest. In the future, there may be more than a dozen days above 100 degrees each summer, which will cause significantly more animal losses. In the South heat deaths have always been “part of the price of doing business, but it will become more common here in the late century as well,” Bland said.

Dairy producers may see economic loss due to increased climate temperatures as well. Bland predicts that within the next 15 years the Upper Midwest will see a .01 to 2.8 percent milk loss due to heat, as well as an increase in heat-related death loss. Reproductive rates tend to have harsh declines in extreme heat as well, which also will impact the financial bottom line.

In some areas of Wisconsin, the number of days with more than 2 inches of rainfall has increased by 3.5 days. He explained, “The amount of atmospheric moisture is going up because the warmer air holds up to 40 percent more water vapor.”

That increase in major rain events in turn will cause another problem for farmers. “Soil erosion challenges are only going to get worse,” Bland said.

Future crop production is likely to be impacted in both negative and positive ways overall. Using predicted temperature and precipitation models, it is possible that some grain production states will lose up to 34 percent of their production of crops such as soybeans, while other states will see an increase of up to 22 percent. Overall, however, Bland believes the country’s ability to produce grains will decrease.

In the U.S., agriculture is responsible for 6 to 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 32 percent for electricity, 28 percent for transportation and 20 percent for industry. Bland said thus far organic cropping systems have not shown lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventional. Dairy producers, however, may be able to reduce greenhouse gases by increasing cow longevity and increasing milk production.

The complete recording of Bland’s workshop, Climate and Agriculture: Our Evolving Understanding, is available on the MOSES store in Mp3 and CD formats. See mosesorganic.net/product/climate-and-agriculture.

USDA’s Focus on Climate
Earlier this spring, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack laid out a comprehensive approach to partner with agricultural producers to address the threat of climate change. Building on the creation of USDA’s Climate Hubs last year, the new initiatives will utilize voluntary, incentive-based conservation, forestry, and energy programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon sequestration and expand renewable energy production in the agricultural and forestry sectors.

Through these efforts, the USDA expects to reduce net emissions and enhance carbon sequestration by over 120 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year—about 2 percent of economy-wide net greenhouse emissions—by 2025. That’s the equivalent of taking 25 million cars off the road, or the emissions produced by powering nearly 11 million homes last year.

The USDA has outlined the following “Building Blocks for Climate Action.”
Soil Health: Improve soil resilience and increase productivity by promoting conservation tillage and no-till systems, planting cover crops, planting perennial forages, managing organic inputs and compost application, and alleviating compaction. For example, the effort aims to increase the use of no-till systems to cover more than 100 million acres by 2025.

Nitrogen Stewardship: Focus on the right timing, type, placement and quantity of nutrients to reduce nitrous oxide emissions and provide cost savings through efficient application.

Livestock Partnerships: Encourage broader deployment of anaerobic digesters, lagoon covers, composting, and solids separators to reduce methane emissions from cattle, dairy, and swine operations, including the installation of 500 new digesters over the next 10 years.

Conservation of Sensitive Lands: Use the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) to reduce GHG emissions through riparian buffers, tree planting, and the conservation of wetlands and organic soils. For example, the effort aims to enroll 400,000 acres of lands with high greenhouse gas benefits into the Conservation Reserve Program.

Grazing and Pasture Lands: Support rotational grazing management on an additional 4 million acres, avoiding soil carbon loss through improved management of forage, soils and grazing livestock.

Private Forest Growth and Retention: Through the Forest Legacy Program and the Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program, protect almost 1 million additional acres of working landscapes. Employ the Forest Stewardship Program to cover an average of 2.1 million acres annually (new or revised plans), in addition to the 26 million acres covered by active plans.

Energy Generation and Efficiency: Promote renewable energy technologies and improve energy efficiency. Through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program, work with utilities to improve the efficiency of equipment and appliances. Using the Rural Energy for America Program, develop additional renewable energy opportunities. Support the National On-Farm Energy Initiative to improve farm energy efficiency through cost-sharing and energy audits.

Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer with a farming background. She lives with her family on a homestead in Iowa.

From the July | August 2015 Issue

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