Animal Agriculture in a Changing Climate

Animal agricultureBy Jennifer Pronto

In the northeastern United States, people aren’t the only ones being affected by shifts in weather patterns and extreme weather events. Livestock, namely dairy and swine as well as poultry live closely with these changes. 

Projections show an increased frequency of days with extreme heat, meaning increased heat stress.  Increased heat stress significantly impacts dairy cow milk production, poultry egg production, and feed conversion of meat animals and birds.  In all, this results in increased cost and decreased farm revenue.  Similarly, projected increases in precipitation, especially in heavy precipitation events, mean additional challenges in storing and managing livestock and poultry manures for many farms, not to mention challenges with growing their food. 

To help adapt to these impacts and better equip producers to be prepared for unexpected changes in the weather, the Cornell Dairy Environmental Systems (DES) group, working with others nationally, has initiated a major effort to increase the knowledge base of those who provide education and advice to livestock and poultry producers in the Northeast.  With previous experience in dairy cattle health and comfort, greenhouse gas quantification, anaerobic digestion and climate change issues with respect to agriculture, the project was a natural fit for the DES team to pursue.  As part of a national USDA-NIFA funded project focused on animal agriculture and climate change, Cornell DES is collaborating with four other universities nationwide in the pursuit of educating extension agents and farm advisors.  Often times the local extension educators/farm advisors have a close working relationship with farmers and are in an ideal position to pass on controversial information in a way that will get farmers attention, since they are a trusted entity. 

Currently, many extension educators are tasked with working to cover multiple issues and topics, and as budgets and funding for extension activities decreases, fewer people are left to serve the increasingly complex and critical needs of agricultural producers.  This is one challenge the project faces when attempting to train educators in yet another emerging area needing significant attention.  In addition, the topic of climate change is often misunderstood by the lay person and is also politically charged, making it potentially difficult to educate others who may have misconceptions or misunderstandings about animal agriculture and climate change.  When extension educators and farm advisors are armed with accurate science and current technology, they can effectively transfer information about how to adapt to changing weather conditions to producers and farm operators who need it most. 

Impacts to the dairy industry of projected climate change in the Northeast

The most recent and comprehensive document outlining climate change in the Northeast and its impact on different sectors is the ClimAID Report (2011).  This report specifically addresses the dairy industry – economically the most significant agricultural industry in New York – and how it will be impacted when weather patterns change.  The greatest challenges are expected from altered temperature and precipitation patterns.

Sprayers and fans for cows.

Sprinklers and fans can help dairy cows cope with the increase in extremely warm days that climate models predict for the Northeast. (Left: Univ. of Delaware Extension. Right: DeLaval.

Temperature: The ClimAID report projects that average annual temperatures for the region will increase, relatively evenly across all seasons.  The most significant impact of the temperature increase will be in the summer.  Dairy cows start encountering physically stressful conditions at air temperatures around 68°F with moderate levels of humidity, which has and does exist in the current climate in the Northeast.  However, with projections in the ClimAID Report showing a higher frequency of extreme heat days in the summer, and an overall increase in temperatures, the incidence of heat stress days for dairy animals will increase as well.

This has significant implications on dairy cattle performance, most notably milk production, which can decrease significantly when cows encounter heat stress conditions.  The ClimAID report says, “Projections of climate change effects on future milk production decline show more than a six-fold increase compared to the historical average by end of century (2080s), with milk production dropping by 248 pounds per cow per year for the 65-pound-per-day cows and 437 pounds per cow per year for the 85-pound-per-day cows.”  Many cows currently produce more than 85 lbs. per cow per day now, and with production levels still increasing it is likely that the average herd will produce more than 100 lbs. of milk per cow per day before 2080 arrives and thus even more milk loss is possible in the future.

Full manure storage

Predicted changes in precipitation will affect how manure is stored and applied.

Precipitation: The changes that are predicted to current precipitation levels are less certain than the projections to changes in temperature.  The changes forecasted for precipitation include an overall increase in precipitation, with most of that increase coming during the winter months, and a higher incidence of extreme rainfall events.  These projections have significant consequences for waste management on farms, namely, the storage of manure.

Manure storages are typically designed with a specific holding capacity and storage time-frame, based on the size of the farm, location of the farm, and other variables.  Entities, such as the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), recently altered design standards to include a factor for increased precipitation, since manure is stored through the winter until it can be spread on fields during spring.  Larger storages with increased capacity designed and constructed as a result of changing weather patterns will cost producers more to own and operate.

Highly accessible, free of charge educational content

To help producers address these changes, a national USDA-NIFA funded project has been exploring ways to increase knowledge and capacity among livestock and poultry extension specialists across the country.  In September 2013, the project launched an online course with this goal in mind.  The course consists of seven modules that briefly, but concisely, cover the necessary background for the following topics:

animal-ag-online-courseTo register for the Animal Agriculture and Climate Change online course – please visit:
New sessions starting each month!
  • Global, National, and Regional Climate Trends
  • Climate Impacts on Animal Production
  • Adaptation and Risk Management
  • Climate Science
  • Contribution and Mitigation of Greenhouse Gas Emissions
  • Regulations, Policy and Market Opportunities
  • Communicating Science During Controversy

This course is offered free of charge, and is completed at the participant’s own selected pace, typically in four to six weeks.  Some participants choose to complete the course in two days, similar to a multiple-day workshop, while others choose to spend one hour per day until it is complete.  Most participants spend between 12 to 15 hours on the course.  The format of the course is a 30 to 40-minute video lecture followed by a quiz and/or short essay question. There are bi-weekly online-chat forums that allow participants to interact with each other as well as to ask questions directly to each of the course professionals.  Two professional organizations have offered continuing education unit’s (CEU’s) for completion of the course – Certified Crop Advisors (CCA) as well as the American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists (ARPAS).  Cornell University has also recently approved the offering of CEU’s to participants, through the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions.

Offering this education for existing extension educators is vital, since there are currently no known plans or funds to create new, exclusively climate risk management-based extension positions for agriculture.  Nationally, the AACC project will continue to pursue education of extension agents through the online course and a constantly updated website resource hosting extension materials for specialists to use in their programming.  Regionally, Cornell DES continues to work with states individually to expand programming, and to serve all stakeholders through the expansion of a website resource housing extension materials targeted towards regionally-specific livestock species issues.

Producers of all livestock species stand to lose revenue and face increased costs of production due to changing climate that affects temperatures and rainfall.  Risk management strategies, and a basic awareness of weather and climate learned through this course have the potential to greatly reduce the impact to livestock producers.

jennifer-prontoJennifer Pronto is a research assistant in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering

Category: Climate Change Forum

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