Climate Change Adaptation for Animal Agriculture


Farmers themselves are starting to see trends. They’re responding. While we’re seeing changes in climate, we’re also seeing farmers adapt. Farmers have growing concerns about the impacts of changing temperatures and precipitation patterns on farm profitability. Unless people are adaptable, and unless people can think ahead, you’re putting yourself in a pretty serious position. Many are looking to reduce these impacts through management changes or implementing new technologies. This is referred to as Climate Change Adaptation. Hi, my name is David Schmidt and I am an agricultural engineer at the University of Minnesota and regional coordinator for the Animal Agriculture in a Changing Climate Project. My father grew up on a farm and remembers well the dust bowl, the great depression, and working the field with horses.

In this photo, my father is the one sitting between his sisters and riding with his grandparents in a horse drawn buggy. Here is my father 85 years later, touring a new swine gestation barn complete with a geothermal cooling system for the sows. Agriculture has changed significantly in his lifetime. Some changes have been driven by science and technology. Developments in diet, genetics, feeding, buildings, equipment, and business structure – all resulting in producing more with less. Other changes have been driven by policy or regulations to make our food supply more safe and secure. World population growth, water availability, water quality, consumer demands, and concerns about agricultural pollution willl likely accelerate changes in agricultural production.

This will be a challenge for farmers across the globe. In addition, in many geographic areas, farmers will be challenged with significant changes in climate. In this lesson on adaptation to climate change, we will be discussing both reactive adaptation and anticipatory adaptation. Reactive adaptation refers to the short term adjustments that farmers make in response to current climate conditions. Anticipatory adaptation includes any long term planning and changes made as a result of predicted climate changes. Both are important. Farmers are already adapting. So you see farmers that are planting earlier, that are relying on larger equipment to be able to get into the field quicker, because their planting windows are shorter and the seasons . . . springs in particular have been wet across the Midwest and northeast. We’ve seen farmers that are going back and installing more tile drainage and increasing drainage to deal with these wet conditions. And so while we’re seeing changes in climate, we’re also seeing farmers adapt to what they’re seeing on the ground.

Now that adaptation so far, that adaptation has been reactive. Farmers are responding to what they’re seeing on the ground, what they’ve seen over the last three to five seasons, and trying to plan accordingly. And that’s working for now. But as we look forward, we’re going to see an acceleration of climate change. That’s what all of the analysis is showing, is that the trends that we’ve been seeing which have been about 0.2 degrees of warming per decade, we expect that to increase. Over the next century or by the middle of the century we could be seeing 0.6 to 0.8 degrees of warming per decade. And at that point, farmers are going to have trouble keeping up if we just rely on reactive adaptation. We will be discussing adaptation strategies – reactive and anticipatory – through the lens of a climate audit we will divide the farm into four segments to help organize the audit. We will be using Farm Inputs, Animal Production, Logistics, and Farm Exports. Some adaptation strategies may be short term and will affect the farm’s current management practices and decisions. Long term adaptation strategies include things like investing in genetics, buildings, or equipment, or diversifying the farm. Making decisions about which adaptation strategies to implement requires data.

Unfortunately, the data on future climate conditions is uncertain, and that can make decisions on whether to invest in long-term strategies more complicated as they weigh the cost of investing against the potential benefits. Farmers are always looking for ways to cut their costs and ensure their profitability. And this would be no different than any other kind of technology that they would sit down and say okay I’m losing x number of sows that we’re gonna attribute to heat stress, and that’s costing me y dollars per year, if I put some sort of mitigation strategy in, whether it’s a geothermal or whether it’s just air source heat pump or something, and that system’s gonna cost me x, and it’s gonna cost me so much to manage it and keep it operating, and they’ll do the math and say it’ll pay back in 35 years—nah, I’ll wear the cost of the lost sows.

If it’s gonna pay it back in 3 or 4 or whatever their break point is, they’ll say yeah we’ll have a go at it. And then technology will get better and they’ll pay it back quicker. The farm audit begins with farm inputs, We will look at ways to reduce the exposure of these farm inputs to the risk of climate uncertainty. These inputs include water, feed, energy, young stock shipped onto the farm and other farm supplies. Climate adaptation is also referred to as ‘building of climate resilience’, ‘reducing climate vulnerability’, or ‘reducing climate risks’. Reducing climate risks for the important farm inputs of feed and water will mean something different to farmers who grow their own feed versus those who purchase feed. It means something different for farmers who pump water from an aquifer than it does for those who get it from a river sourced by snow melt. It may also be of greater concern for some than others depending on local climate trends or climate projections.

Many farmers are already adapting their feed systems to become more resilient. They are making changes in crop rotations, crop genetics, or in forage and pasture management. I think what is probably helping to reduce the effects of these changes are the way we’re managing the animals, managing the grazing. I’m using a planned grazing process where it is using high density short duration grazing . . . And so even when we are getting into those periods when we’re having a summer – dryer summer, for instance, that we’re able to get through that because of the planning process and because we’re able to produce more forage. Because I know that there are going to be times when maybe I am going to have to sell animals if I don’t have enough feed.

One of the most critical points is to manage stocking rates to match pasture availability in natural grazing systems. If you don’t do that you end up overgrazing and getting longer term degradation and damage to the environment. And that is not helpful to the farmers in the long term in terms of income but it is also not helpful to the environment. So the recommendations we can make are to manage in advance for your stocking numbers – the number of animals you hold relative to feed, to feed early so to down stock early and to feed early. That’s easy to say but it’s not easy to do in terms of feed costs and the capacity to offload animals. But that’s the first recommendation. The second recommendation is to look to the future to how you can improve your grazing systems to be more drought tolerant in the species that you might sow into your pastures. . . . So those can be proactive and get it up on the early side of the drought, and have that flexibility in the system to make management decisions ahead of time before that drought becomes an economic devastation to that enterprise.

A lot of ways that individual producers try to prepare themselves better for drought is to improve the monitoring on their farm. If we can improve soil health, improve organic matter in soils, they turn out to be more resilient to extremes—both extremely wet conditions and extremely dry conditions. So soil health is going to be a key part of our strategy going forward. Genetics is another important strategy. We’ve seen improvements in the crops that we’ve grown over time, and that’s resulted in improved productivity, but it has also resulted in crops being more resilient to things like drought. And so the crops we have today that we’re working with, the soy bean and corn crop in particular, is a stronger crop—stronger root systems, deeper root systems, and those plants are more likely to withstand drought than even the crops that we had 20 years ago.

One farm in South Dakota recently made news headlines with its comprehensive adaptation strategy to survive drought. This 5 points strategy involved: adding more forage reserve both standing and stored, managed grazing to build resiliency in soils and grasses, storing more hay to supplement forage, monitoring rainfall and soil moisture, adjusting animal numbers after anticipating the future forage supply Other short term adaptations for farm inputs in areas prone to drought might include: More efficient crop irrigation or planting drought tolerant crops , better soil management to enhance water retention, additional capacity in stock tanks or farm ponds, integrated pest management programs, since climate change can cause new disease and weed problems for crops, additional feed suppliers or more feed storage on the farm, multiple suppliers of young stock, increasing the farm buildings’ resilience may require additional fuel storage or additional back up electrical generation if the farm’s energy supply, fuels or electricity are vulnerable. Long term adaptation strategies for farm inputs should also be considered: Ensuring an adequate feed supply might require more extensive pasture or rangeland improvements.

It may require changing crops or tillage to better match climate conditions. Water security may mean drilling new wells, installing new irrigation systems, expanding farm ponds, or purchasing water rights. Long term adaptation might even include moving animals to other geographic regions with a better water supply. The animal production phase of the farm operation is also quite vulnerable to climate changes. Often this vulnerability might show up in the form of heat stress on the animals. Heat stress may impact production and reproduction, and can also increase the risk of diseases and other animal health concerns. Short term adaptation strategies to prevent heat stress in animal production should include more monitoring and better management of existing systems, making sure the ventilation system is working properly, adjusting temperature set points, monitoring animal behavior for signs of heat stress, making sure animal cooling systems are operational in the early spring and late fall, improved protocols for feeding in hot and cold weather, adding more watering locations, shade structures or other heat abatement systems.

Many of the short-term adaptation strategies for heat stress just described are already deployed on most farms. Proper cooling requires protection from the sun with either shading or a building followed by good air exchanges in any buildings and adequate air speed across the animals. Proper cooling also includes misting systems or soaker systems for animals that lose heat through evaporative cooling. It is also important to focus cooling strategies on areas such as the holding areas in dairies or wherever animal density is greatest. Farmers and animal production experts can describe the many benefits of implementing these short-term adaptation strategies for heat stress. I would say spray cooling probably is most common, I would say one of the advantages of it, in loose housing where cows are feeding at a common feed area, is that where the spray cooling would be, it would soak them, and usually it’s a cycle of anywhere from 5-10 minutes, it would soak them for 1-2 minutes and then it would evaporate for the rest of that period. For our sow farms we have a cool cell system which essentially is a filter before the air comes into the barn and cool water comes down.

We can drop the temperature about 10 degrees, at best, from outside temperature. So for grow finishing we are naturally ventilated, which we’re counting on the wind. We are counting on outside temperatures. We do have a mister system to replicate sweating. That won’t go on till about 85 degrees. We turn it on for about 10 minutes and then we turn it off for about 20 minutes or as long as it takes to evaporate things so you don’t soak the pigs the whole time. They’ll stand up, so you’ll see a lot more animals standing. So you’ll see a lot more animals standing, rumination will actually go down, you’ll actually get a decrease in activity, so even though they’re standing they won’t be walking around as much, they’ll try to stand in one spot. So all of these behavioral changes not only can you pick them up and they have economic losses to the farm from a production standpoint but with some of the technologies that we have today we can identify these behavioral changes and then hopefully go in and make changes at the farm level to cool the animal or alleviate some of that stress. If I can pick up that this animal is started to become heat-stressed and I can find out where that is and I can start cooling at that time point and wherever that is on the farm, once I’m visually able to see a cow open-mouth, panting, and saliva, the heat stress as occurred, the damage is done.

So I want to go in and start cooling and prevent that animal from getting elevated temperature and prevent her going into stress because once you can visually see it most of the time milk production and the other switches physiologically will already have occurred and so that’s some of the challenges is trying to identify heat stress before it happens. I think the other thing is, and I run into this a fair amount is people that have a lot of cooling put in, but they get so busy, there’s so many things going on – they come in the spring with farming, and school activities, you name it and so I’ll go into a farm that has a ton of cooling technology but they didn’t clean the fans, or a third of the fans aren’t working, and the shades on the side of the barn, half of them are still up because they forgot to pull them down to allow the air flow to go through. Or you look at the nozzle heads on the sprayers and a third of those aren’t working. So I encourage the guys – make sure you know – just do a heat stress audit on your farm. Make sure everything’s working, everything’s clean, your nozzles are working, well before summer hits.

Don’t wait until summer hits to go out and start making the change because once an animal experiences heat stress, again, talking about damaging the eggs and you’ll see the effects for a month and a half, two months. Once heat stress occurs, it’s hard to recover from that. So catch it before heat stress occurs and cooling those animals at the very beginning, well before summer. Keep in mind, animals are comfortable at about 40°, lactating dairy cows at about 40°. With a lot of our farmers the calves are raised in hutches and we’ve had some challenges just of the hutches getting too warm so making some of those adaptations where we can lift up the back end of the hutch or we’ve had farms where they cut out the back of the hutch completely and put a hog panel in there just to increase the airflow. Long term adaptation strategies for animal production can include continual planning and large-scale investments in animal genetics, farm buildings and pasture systems.

As one example, dairy farms in the Midwest are moving away from naturally-ventilated barns to mechanically-ventilated barns, which give animal producers to better control over the environmental conditions inside the barn. When we originally built these barns they were to be naturally ventilated barns but we didn’t do it right. We built them in a little bit of a valley instead of on top of a hill where you get the nice breezes. And they aren’t really tall enough. You need at least a 16 foot sidewall. These are only 12 so we were having problems with cows in the weather like we had this past week. They bomb. They just drop 7 lbs. of milk in 2 days cause they just weren’t eating anymore. They were just fighting the hot weather. And so I went out to South Dakota and looked at the cross ventilated barns that were going in out there and I said well this is how we can salvage these barns and continue to use so we made them cross ventilated barns.

When we put the cross ventilation system in there, the soaker lines were controlled by a thermostat and they just never came on again so we don’t use the soaker lines anymore. We just depend upon the air movement through the barns to keep the cattle comfortable. I knew what it cost us to cross ventilate these two barns, I knew what kind of milk we were getting out of these cows and according to my calculations it was paid for in about a year and a half. Geothermal cooling systems like this one in western Minnesota are also being considered by some producers as a viable long term investment for animal cooling. The real problem, primarily from production were environment or weather is summer, and we can get very warm temperatures, especially in this part of Minnesota, so providing some way to provide cooling like a geothermal system is – I think, things that we’ll start to see being investigated more. In this particular case they decided to invest in these facilities on a more permanent basis just because of their business model that they’re using here, which is different than you’re going to see in most production facilities.

This is a 900 sow facility, farrow-to-nursery site. They’re incorporating with the geo-thermal system, which I think is reasonable in a production system like this, you have to be integrated properly into the ventilation system, and the system basically has to be properly sized to provide sufficient cooling but you can also still properly ventilate the facility. Even though you can’t see them there are 360 wells that are approximately 220 feet deep kind of all around this first facility. You can see, each one of these little opening or inlets on the side of the building – each one of those, there are 36 wells that service one of those openings and that acts as the inlet and thus the way that they temper the incoming air. So the investment made can be thought of as controlling some of their risk, preventing some of the catastrophic losses that might occur from real extreme heat conditions which would not only result in loss of gain or production but might result in mortalities.

Producers are also making long-term investments in animal genetics, developing breeds that are more adaptable to future climate conditions. The other thing that farmers are managing to do is to choose breeds more carefully that respond better to drier, hotter conditions. A recent study of breed allocation in Texas beef cattle showed that heat tolerant breeds such as Brahman, are growing more prevalent in the warmer parts of Texas. Another category of farm operation that is vulnerable to climate change is farm logistics. This category covers a wide range of farm management practices, planning decisions and technologies. In the short term, there are many strategies to consider to reduce the vulnerability of farm logistics to climate events. These include: being prepared with backup power for critical functions around the farm.

Forming emergency response plans in case of extreme weather events. Making sure ventilation and cooling systems are ready early and late in the season. Storing additional feed for times of drought or flooding Developing plans for transporting animals in extreme heat Planning for the transporting of supplies into the farm or exporting off the farm when there is flooding. Planning ahead for managing animals in extreme cold or blizzard conditions. Building resiliency into the manure management system. Really your manure storage is something that you should be managing all the time, you know, do you have field that is appropriate to apply it, is there a time that you need to apply it in preparation for a period that you can’t apply? And so no matter how big your storage is, even if you have a one-year storage or more you really need to be looking all the time for appropriate ways to apply it and keep managing it.

Building resilience into the manure storage system also means setting aside higher drier ground for manure application or managing the manure storage so there is room in case of an unexpected large rainfall event. A producer with a 5000-head beef feedlot in Southwest Minnesota had given up on fighting the weather and decided to move most of his animals into a barn with slatted floors and a deep pit for manure storage He determined that the added investment was profitable in the long run, based on labor costs and animal performance. The final phase of the farm operation affected by climate change is Farm Exports. Unfortunately farmers do not have much control over the market prices for their products. Natural economic cycles of supply and demand, as well as local and national economics, all play a role and all are impacted by climate and weather. In the short term, practices such as Contracting for farm products is common.

Farmers also participate in insurance programs to protect against farm losses. These tools may become more important in the future, and they may evolve as a result of climate and weather changes. Many farms are already more diversified in products, vertically integrated, or have farms in several geographic locations to hedge against climate uncertainty. Unfortunately, there is no simple way to determine the long-term benefits of some adaptation strategies due to the uncertainty of future weather events and of future climate impacts on the farm. For instance, it’s likely animal scientists do not yet completely understand the full impact of heat stress on dairy cows, so how can one possibly quantify potential damage from heat stress and weigh that against potential benefit of a heat abatement system? Long-term adaptation strategies are also more challenging, as these investment decisions must take into account economic outlooks that project 15, -20 or 30 years in the future.

Climate projections are uncertain as are population numbers, consumer demands and global markets. Because of the uncertainty involved in making these long-term investment decisions, farmers should consult with a team of experts in a variety of fields that look at all aspects of a farm’s operation. These decisions may require knowledge of farm finances, management structure, equipment and facilities, as well as consideration of a farm’s long term goals. Experts can help farmers look at options and weigh the costs and benefits. I do some of the transition planning and some of the long term planning but I’ve noticed as we are doing more building plan herd expansion plans – people are figuring out – all right we need to have the electricity coming into the farm to run these fans and you know maybe this year we can’t afford fans or sprinklers but what systems should we be putting in the new barn? So what needs to be considered when you are looking at capital investment analysis is what is going to be the impact to yield, and anything to do with returns. It could be price, it could be the quality of product, and how that does impacts the returns, and also how that impacts cost.

What are the changes to cost structures, does it increase, decrease, the amount does the price change? And then we are looking at the delta for before and after effects of climate change for example in this situation. When we are talking about climate change we are talking about 25-35 years in the future which is very difficult to predict. With other capital anlysis we might be looking at 5-10- to 15 -20 years. So you have a lot less time as far as risk involved. And so, that’s the main differences. But as far as the procedures, the analyses that you do, it is the same. In this video we tried to provide some examples of adaptation strategies or ways to become more resilient to climate impacts. In addition, we introduced you to a strategy or framework to help think about the many adaptation options. There is no one size fits all adaptation plan. Adaptation plans must be based on regional climate trends and specific farm impacts. . Conducting a climate audit using categories of farm inputs, animal production, logistics, and farm exports may be helpful. Listing the likely impacts along with adaptation options is also helpful. Once the list is developed the costs and benefits can be evaluated and decisions made.

Nothing about adaptation planning is easy but it is important. Thanks for watching!.