Mother Nature has provided increasingly erratic rainfall for the Great Plains over the past decade, which has impacted grasslands, forage systems and beef production in the region – and scientists are expect this trend to intensify.
Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientists and collaborators explored the rural economic impacts of climate variability and identified potential future outcomes for beef cattle production in a research paper titled “Future Climate Variability Will Challenge Beef Production.” Butchery in the Great Plains,” recently published in the journal. Journey.
David Briske, Ph.D., AgriLife Research Range Ecologist in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Texas A&M University, Bryan-College Station, was the main author. Co-authors were John Ritten, Ph.D., University of Wyoming; Amber Campbell, Ph.D., Kansas State University; Toni Klemm, Ph.D., AgriLife Research Postdoctoral Fellow; and Audrey King, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University.
The researchers concluded that the key to sustainable beef cattle production on the Great Plains is to prepare rather than react to climate change in the region and hope their paper can guide discussions and encourage future action.
Increased climate variability in the Great Plains
Climate change is often thought of as a gradual, long-term change in weather patterns such as precipitation and temperature. But future weather patterns in the Great Plains could be characterized by increased rainfall variability, or an increase in instances of wet or dry years and fewer “normal years,” Briske said.
Increased rainfall variability will have broad consequences for the region, but agriculture and rural economies could be the most vulnerable, Briske said. Cattle farms, which depend on grassland forage for much of their animals’ dietary intake, could be particularly vulnerable to increased rainfall variability.
The Great Plains contain the largest remaining tracts of grassland and 50% of the nation’s beef cows, over 16 million head, representing major components of the region’s overall agricultural economy. Beef cattle production contributed $43 billion to national and local Great Plains economies in 2017.
In Texas alone, beef cattle and calves generate the largest total contribution among agricultural commodities for the state – $8.566 billion in cash receipts alone, according to a 2020 Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service economic impact study. focused on food and fiber production.
Precipitation variability is highest in the southern Great Plains
A key impact of increased rainfall variability is on grassland forage production which supports cow and calf production throughout the region. Researchers are studying past, present and future climate projections and the consequences that increased variability could have on sustainable beef production.
“The focus has been on the change in total annual precipitation, but what is most striking is the increase in interannual variability – the phenomenon where we go from a few drier than normal years to flooding. , then to a drought and so on,” Briske said.
It is important to recognize that this is different from managing drought alone, he said.
“I do not wish to be alarmist, but we want to present this message in the context of agricultural production so that the industry can prepare to offset the impact of greater climate variability on individual producers, grassland conservation and rural economies.
The research indicates that the number of forage deficit years for the Southern Plains, which includes Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma, fell from two years per decade to three years, four months per decade and remained at two years. for the northern plains. The number of abundant forage years increased from two to five years per decade in the northern plains and from two to three and a half years in the southern plains by the end of the century.
This indicates that beef producers will experience a greater number of years where annual forage production can vary by 50%. This increases the already difficult task of balancing fodder production with livestock demand. Briske said this increasing climate variability could present sustainability issues for beef cattle operations and regions that have historically been successful.
This variability will negatively impact the economic viability of beef cattle production and the sustainability of grasslands by creating conditions conducive to overgrazing, he said. But effective adaptations that could help cattle producers minimize impacts require greater consideration.
Deeper culling and liquidation of cattle herds in drought years and then restocking in normal or wet years creates the greatest economic hardship for beef producers, Briske said. The researchers highlighted the need for adaptations that will minimize overgrazing of grasslands and the need to undergo costly destocking-restocking cycles as the most critical.
But current climate adaptations, including appropriate stocking rates for conservative grazing, grass beds and water development, may be insufficient to offset the negative economic impacts of future rainfall variability, he said. -he declares. Research suggests that beef cattle production could gradually shift from southern plains states like Texas to the central and northern plains.
For example, Briske said, the Dakotas and Nebraska gained 403,000 cows between 2010 and 2020, while Texas lost 570,000.
The sooner is now
The researchers highlighted the need to act as soon as possible and incorporate ideas from multiple sectors of society outside of agriculture to support sustainable cattle production on the grasslands.
The action begins with a shift in stakeholder perspective towards a proactive rather than reactive response to severe weather events such as droughts and floods, Briske said. Preparation will require anticipating threats to the sustainability of beef cattle production in the Great Plains at both macro and micro scales.
Beef cattle producers in the Southern Plains were interviewed as part of this research. The majority indicated they were aware, but uncertain, of future climate impacts, suggesting they would benefit from assistance in developing and implementing appropriate adaptations, Briske said.
Suggesting that stakeholders act now rather than wait for the crisis, he said the first conversations about the potential impacts of increasing weather variability could be led by trade groups and the cattle industry. who carry political weight at all levels of government. Beef cattle and animal husbandry industry coalitions could make lawmakers aware that changes in state and federal policies regarding sustainability in future climates should be a top priority now and in the future.
“The key is to start planning and investing in coping strategies in good years,” he said. “The region is likely to experience an increasing number of wet and dry years in the future. The question is whether industry and rural areas will be prepared.