Gary Price, a cattle rancher near Blooming Grove, Texas for more than 40 years, knows something about the weather. Price observed the weather used to follow a fairly predictable pattern. “We had cold winters and then a good spring flush,” he said. “We knew when our clovers were going to start growing and could almost predict to the day when we were going to have enough grass to stop feeding. If you could hang on until mid-September, when the fall rains would start, you’d be okay.”
Since about 2007, though, Price has seen a new kind of variability to the weather. Heat waves have been longer and more intense, and droughts have been more persistent, including a three-month stretch with no rain in 2011 that left all of his ponds dry.
Change all around the country
Price is not alone in grappling with more variable weather patterns and extreme weather events.
In the Midwest and Northeast, more frequent heavy spring rainfalls complicate fieldwork and bring catastrophic flooding. In the Southwest, prolonged and extreme droughts have forced many ranchers to reduce herd size or exit ranching altogether.
As winters warm and growing seasons lengthen, pest populations are increasing throughout the country. Warmer winters and springs cause fruit trees to bloom earlier, increasing the risk of total fruit crop failure due to freezes. In many regions, producers struggle to manage more periods of higher temperatures and dry weather, along with more heat waves and drought. This situation is made more challenging as competition for water intensifies.
Year after year, farmers and ranchers do their best to manage for these sometimes unpredictable risks inherent to their profession. Managing weather-related risk has become even harder, as weather patterns become more variable from day to day and season to season.
These changes in weather patterns have created a new kind of risk that is expected to grow in importance in coming years. This new kind of risk, called climate risk, is defined as the additional risk created by rising temperatures and more variable precipitation patterns associated with changing climate conditions.
Management improves resiliency
The good news is that many of the best strategies for addressing climate risk are already familiar to farmers and ranchers through practices commonly associated with sustainable agriculture, such as diversifying crops, livestock, enterprises and markets; improving soil health through cover crops, no-till, composting and other techniques; integrating crops and livestock; adopting management-intensive grazing; reducing the use of off-farm inputs; and using whole-farm planning.
Rancher Price, for example, planned grazing to restore degraded soils and native tallgrass prairies throughout his ranch, reducing his herd size to about 85 percent of what he knew his land could support, and leased additional rangeland to provide some forage reserves in the event that extreme weather reduces forage yields.
He is now experimenting with grazing cover crop cocktails on his cropland. “We’re learning to manage for less water…and more heat, so we’re keeping as much cover as we possibly can on the land and then trying to balance that out with our stock numbers,” he said.
As these changes make Price’s ranch more sustainable, they also make it resilient, a key concept and strategy to help manage the new risks posed by changing weather patterns.
When confronted with changing weather patterns or an extreme weather event, a resilient farm or ranch has more capacity to avoid or reduce physical and financial damage than comparable farms and ranches using conventional management practices, and it can recover from damage more quickly.
A resilient farm or ranch can also change more easily to meet the future challenges and opportunities created by changing climate conditions. The characteristics of climate-resilient operations also serve to buffer many other risks that make farming and ranching a day-to-day challenge.
“You just don’t know what’s around the next corner, so you have to prepare for the worst,” Price said. “Hope for the best of course, but you know, hope is not a plan.”
Farmers and Ranchers Adapt to Changing Weather
U.S. producers have made or expect to make changes to adapt to the more variable weather and extreme conditions they are witnessing.
Corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest and Northern Great Plains are adapting to longer dry periods and drought, higher disease and insect pressure, increased heat stress, and more frequent extreme rains by implementing new in-field conservation practices such as cover crops, purchasing more crop insurance or adjusting their insurance plans, and adding new technologies.
Producers in Mississippi, Texas, North Carolina and Wisconsin growing corn, cotton, grain sorghum, rice, and wheat say that if weather variability and extremes continue, they would most likely diversify crops, buy crop insurance, modify lease arrangements or exiting farming altogether.
Maine farmers representing major commodity groups—potatoes, dairy, blueberries, vegetables, apples, beef, and nursery plants—have adapted to more erratic weather, new pests and more extreme weather events through crop diversification, adding drainage or irrigation systems, and more protected growing space, and ecological production practices that build soil health.
Organic and conventional grain producers in Montana have adapted to more frequent and extreme drought by diversifying crops, improving soil health and increasing profitability by reducing costs, and selling into high-value direct markets.
Crop and livestock producers in Kansas report that changing weather conditions have increased variability of crop yields, pasture regrowth, and crop and livestock maturation rates. To adapt, these producers are testing new crops and production practices, reducing tillage, investing in more efficient irrigation, and purchasing more production insurance.
For more information on strategies to meet these new weather-related challenges, go to sare.org/cultivating-resilience.
About the Author
Trained as a soil scientist, researcher and educator Laura Lengnick operates Cultivating Resilience, LLC, a consulting firm offering ecosystem-based climate risk management and resilience planning services.