20 Ways Climate Impacts Agriculture

( Jennifer Shike )

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Drought. Floods. Early frost. Heat waves. Everyone knows agricultural production is highly sensitive to changes in weather and climate.

A new USDA report focuses on how agricultural systems are impacted by these changes in climate and lists 20 indicators that provide a broad look at what is happening throughout the country today.

The report, "Climate Indicators for Agriculture," is co-authored by Colorado State University's Peter Backlund, associate director of the School of Global Environmental Sustainability, and begins with the scientific fact that climate change is underway. 

Backlund and his team looked at the U.S. agricultural system and examined the climate stresses on production agriculture. The report outlines data that farmers and land managers can use to understand how climate change is affecting their operations and guide the development of effective adaptation, he explains.

"We want to help farmers, ranchers and land managers adapt better under climate change, which requires understanding what is actually happening on the ground. These indicators offer ways to measure the impacts of change," Backlund said in a release.

The 20 climate indicators in the report are organized into five categories:

1.    Physical: extreme precipitation, soil moisture, nighttime air temperature, heat waves and humidity

2.    Crop and livestock: animal heat stress, crop-growing region migration and leaf wetness duration

3.    Biological: weed range and infestation intensity, insect infestation in crops, crop pathogens and pesticide use

4.    Phenological: timing of budbreak in fruit trees, pollinators and pollinator management, winter chill units, insect generations per season and disease vectors in livestock 

5.    Socioeconomic: crop insurance payments, total factor productivity and heat-related mortality of agricultural workers

The indicators were selected based on the strength of their connection to climate change and availability of long-term data, Backlund explained, which is needed to identify how impacts are changing over time and whether adaptive actions are having the desired effect. In the future, he believes these indicators will help us better understand the impact of climate change.

Animal Heat Stress
Livestock production is dependent on environmental conditions that allow access to feed, water and essential nutrients at low cost. Some types of animal agriculture are practiced in regions where natural climate conditions (outdoor) are favorable for the animals to thrive. Most swine and poultry are housed indoors where facilities can be cooled through the use of air handling systems.

However, as temperatures rise according to projected heat wave conditions for many regions of the U.S., the report said increasing the ventilation rates to keep indoor facilities cool will be insufficient to manage heat stress. 

"Heat interferes with the rate of reproduction and rate of weight gain," Backlund said in the release. "This presses on the whole operation; it's not just that a few more animals will die from getting too hot."

This report was developed as a launching point from which decision makers can construct a set of indicators specific to their circumstances that will support real-time and longer-term decisions aimed toward meeting their specific and particular objectives, the authors said in the report.

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