Ranching in a Warming World – How climate change will affect cattle production in the U.S. Great Plains (and some solutions)

OCT. 22, 2020 by TONI KLEMM

All photos: Toni Klemm

The U.S. Great Plains, the vast agricultural flatlands between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, are renowned for producing most of the country’s corn, wheat, and soybeans. But they are also home to 16 million beef cows, half of the U.S. beef herd. Ranching is part of the identity of the Great Plains. Livestock plays a key role in maintaining healthy grassland ecosystems, allowing them to reduce soil erosion, store atmospheric carbon in their massive root systems, and provide natural habitats for birds and butterflies migrating across the Great Plains every year. Ranching is also a major economic player in the Great Plains, producing $40 – 50 billion in annual revenue, sustaining many rural communities.

We know quite well how animal agriculture affects climate change (for example, it creates about 2.5% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions), but we know little about the impact of climate change on animal agriculture.

Raising cattle in the U.S. is a complex process, and understanding how it is impacted by climate change is no easy task. It often takes more than a year for an animal from birth to slaughter and over two years for cows to have calves. Calves are usually raised on grassland, finished in feedlots on a diet of specialty grains, like corn, to produce a consistent beef product, and slaughtered in a meat processing plant. Each step is affected by climate variability and change in different ways. In addition, ranchers’ individual choices on managing can affect their operation’s ability to adapt for years to come. All of this makes studying the impacts of climate change on cattle production enormously complex.

Yet, we tried anyway.

The Effects of Drought

It’s impossible to address all components of beef production in one research study. But most cattle production starts on natural grasslands, so that is where our work began. Warming temperatures and more frequent droughts mean less grass growth, resulting in less forage, fewer cows, reduced income, and higher economic risk for ranchers. We’ve seen this in the past, in the 1980s and the 2010s, when the Great Plains suffered two of the most severe droughts since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Ranching and farming during drought is not unusual, and even extended droughts are something most ranchers have contingency plans for, for example, hay reserves and financial savings for supplemental water and forage. But as high temperatures and extreme lack of rainfall batter the region for years, these reserves eventually deplete, and we found that ranchers had to do what they fear most: selling or culling parts of their herds. This is particularly damaging because prices were very low (because everyone was selling) and because herds take years to rebuild and are often bred to match a genetic profile that suits the environment.

The number of cows in the Great Plains declined in the 1980s and 2010s, at the same time as major droughts hit the region. Source: Klemm & Briske 2020

As climate change continues to push the Great Plains towards warmer and drier conditions during this century, its vegetation will transform in major ways. For example, forests in the northeastern Plains of Minnesota and the Dakotas will expand westwards into land now dominated by bushes and shrubs, which will also shift westwards and push the tallgrass prairies and grasslands that dominate the Great Plains further towards the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Conditions for ranching could look very different than they do today.

In addition to these gradual changes, the swinging pendulum of climate variability will bring more years with extreme droughts and fewer years with wet growing seasons, our preliminary research shows. In the past, extremely dry years like those in the 1950s and 1980s have occurred about once per decade and were balanced by one extremely wet year. By the end of this century, dry years will outnumber wet years by a ratio of around 2/1 and 4/1 for moderate and extreme warming. Adding to this imbalance, dry years will also become drier while wet years will become more moderate, and conditions will swing more violently from wet to dry compared to today (as they already do compared to the first half of the 20th century).

Dry years, historically balanced by wet years, will far outnumber them by the end of this century. Source: Klemm et al. (in draft)

We found, this translates directly into a dramatic imbalance of forage resources: fewer “normal” years and more “extreme” (deficit and surplus) years, and deficit years that will be more severe than in the past, while surplus years will be closer to “normal” years of the past. For cattle ranchers this means two things. One, they will have to cope with more years in which their land can’t provide enough feed (and they’ll have to supplement with hay or other forage), and two, they have fewer good years to restock their hay barns while needing more storage for bad years, which costs additional money.

The Economic Impacts

As a result, the economics do not look good. Breaking even or turning a profit will become more and more difficult because preparing and responding to droughts will become more difficult and more expensive for ranch operations. We ran an economic model and estimate that under historic rainfall variability, an average-size ranch in the Central Plains (100 – 200 animals) will have negative returns (i.e., lose money) in one out of seven years. Under extreme climate change (with rainfall variability growing by 26%), the same ranch will lose money every five years by the end of the century. In the Southern Plains, where rainfall is projected to vary by 52%, the situation will be even worse. One in three years will have losses, leaving ranchers with only two years to make up for it. What is more, herds will become 20 to 40% smaller to stay manageable, leaving ranchers with fewer animals to support their income.

With more variable rainfall in the future, annual ranch revenue will become negative more often than in the past. Source: Briske et al. (in review)

Ranch consolidation (creating bigger ranches) and downsizing are polar opposites of dealing with the economic vise slowly crushing traditional ranching in the age of climate change. Less income from ranching will force many smallholder ranchers to replace ranching dollars with other income sources (10 to 20% in our model), for example, agri-tourism (Airbnb, farm stays), hosting hunting programs, producing alternative energies (wind, solar, or geothermal power), or off-ranch occupations (you know, 9-to-5 jobs in town). Some producers have introduced breeds more adapted to drought, like Indian Brahman, or shifted towards specialty breeds (such as Japanese Wagyu) and certifications (grass-fed, organic, halal) to market their meat at higher prices or in new markets.

Producing renewable energy is one way ranchers are making up for lost income from ranching.

Working on Solutions

The costs of adaptation will be hard to
bear for many ranchers.
Source: Briske et al. (in review)

Most ranchers understand that adapting to a more variable climate is important, but many ranchers don’t have the financial power to put themselves on a sustainable path. In a survey of 1200 ranchers in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, one in four said they couldn’t afford it. For half, there had to be a cost-share option with federal or state agencies or a way to recuperate the costs after a few years. Only one in four said they could afford it and simply absorb the costs. The average producer in the U.S. was 58 years old in 2017, 1.2 years older than in 2012, according to the USDA. It’s not difficult to see why few college graduates choose the risky career of raising cattle over other career paths that often provide more secure and higher-paying jobs.

Finding a viable path forward is difficult, but not impossible. One of the most interesting approaches involves raising bison. Native to the Great Plains and still considered wildlife, bison are subject to strict regulations on breeding practices and supplemental forage, which allow for higher market prices than cattle while requiring less work to manage on native rangelands. South Dakota State University recently announced a Center for Excellence for Bison Studies to advance bison research, education, production, and conservation. Perhaps most complex, a group of behavioral scientists, economists, soil scientists, ecologists, and hydrologists at USDA’s Rangeland Resources and Systems Research Unit in Cheyenne, Wyoming has been collaborating for over eight years with cattle producers in Colorado and Wyoming to study the effects of different grazing practices on productivity and conservation.

Partnerships between universities, governmental agencies, and producers are key in advancing sustainable management practices. The North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center at the University of Colorado Boulder is partnering with Conservation Science Partners, an environmental nonprofit, to study sustainable grassland management and to better understand transformational drought. Researchers at the University of Wyoming have worked with the USDA Northern Plains Climate Hub in Ft. Collins, Colorado to study the effectiveness of different grazing practices during wet and dry years. Great Plains Grazing, a USDA-funded 6-year project based at Kansas State University, integrated climate, ecological, and social science research to improve the resilience of beef cattle production. The USDA Grazinglands Research Laboratory in El Reno, Oklahoma, is partnering with producers and several universities on livestock systems research.

Lastly, the Cooperative Extension System associated with land-grant universities across the U.S., translates agricultural research and provides management information and services for farmers and ranchers at no cost.

Maintaining a sustainable livestock sector is critical for the Great Plains, not only because of its ecosystem benefits or its economic impact. Ranching is part of what makes the Great Plains unique. Climate change poses an enormous challenge for ranching in this part of the U.S., and while much of the heavy lifting is still to be done, there are many hopeful signs for powerful solutions.

Related literature:

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