Ranching in a Warming World Is U.S. rangeland cattle production ready for climate change?

Grazing cattle in southern Colorado. All text and photos by Toni Klemm (www.toni-klemm.de)

September 2020

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded a multi-year project to better understand the impacts of future climate change on U.S. rangeland cattle production.

Managed by Toni Klemm and David Briske (Texas A&M University), an interdisciplinary group of range scientists, ecologists, agricultural economists, climate researchers, and anthropologists spent four years studying the effects that global warming and increasing climate extremes have on grassland ecosystems in the Great Plains, analyzed the economic impacts on cattle ranching, and explored socio-economic barriers that make climate change adaptation difficult for rangeland operations.

Click on graphs and charts to enlarge them.

The Situation Today

Climate variability and climate change are already affecting ranch operations.

U.S. farmers and ranchers are among the most productive in the world.

Globally, the U.S. are the third largest producer of total agricultural commodities, like grains, meat, and fruit, by value, behind China and India. Agriculture contributes around $400 billion per year to the national economy, over $100 billion of which come from the Great Plains. Of those $100 billion, almost half, or about $45 billion are generated by cattle production, according to USDA Economic Research Service data.

Climate variability is already affecting cattle production.

Rising temperatures and lower rainfall already have a profound impact on cattle production in the U.S. Droughts in the late 1980s and early 2010s, for example, caused a dramatic drop in cow numbers in the Great Plains, affecting rural economies and livelihoods, especially in states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. In 2013, a meat processing plant in Plainview, Texas was forced to close down due to a lack of cattle in the region, putting thousands of employees out of work and upending lives and futures of many residents. The plant did not reopen and was sold and repurposed.

Klemm and Briske (2019): Retrospective Assessment of Beef Cow Numbers to Climate Variability Throughout the U.S. Great Plains. Rangeland Ecology & Management.

Cow numbers decreased in years when the Great Plains experienced high temperatures and low rainfall, for example between 1987 and 1989 and between 2011 and 2014.

In particular the Southern Plains lost a large part of its cow herd in the 2010s, when drought forced ranchers to cull calves, and increasingly mother cows, to have enough feed for the remaining herd. Rebuilding a herd after such a shock can be a very time- and cost-intensive endeavor.

A complex system

Cattle production in the U.S. is a highly complex system of cow-calf, stocker, feedlot, and meat processing operations. This system is exposed to numerous economic, social, and environmental variables, such as changing tariffs, food preferences, or climate. Rangeland cattle production, for example cow-calf operations, can be affected by climate change in a number of ways, for example through increasing heat stress on animals or as a result of changes in natural grasslands, an important source of forage.

Because of the complexity of cattle production, the effects of climate change are far less understood as, for example, in crop production, which is a much more straight-forward process.

A feedlot operation and a familiar restaurant billboard in the Texas panhandle.

Understanding the Impacts of Future Climate Change

Finding a way into this complex, interdependent system, the group of scientists focused most of its work on understanding how climate change and climate variability affect grassland ecosystems, which are a major source of forage for rangeland cattle operations.

Changes in the quality and quantity of grass forage can affect cattle weight gain, create additional costs for ranchers, and jeopardize their economic viability, which can create ripple effects across the industry.

All of the Great Plains will become warmer, and most of it will receive more rainfall. The result is not good for ranching.

By the end of this century, average annual temperatures in the Great Plains will go up by 3 to 5ºC (6 to 10ºF), turning the Northern Plains into the current Central Plains, and the Central Plains into the current Southern Plains. Rainfall will increase by 5 to 10% in the Northern Plains, while changes in the Southern Plains will be close to zero.

In the long term, changes in temperature and rainfall will affect land cover in the Great Plains, specifically so-called woody plant encroachment. Shrubs and trees, which currently dominate the eastern part of the Northern and Central Plains, will slowly move into western areas dominated by grasslands and push grasslands further west, despite prescribed burning. Compared to the recent past, shrubland and forest areas might grow by 20 to 60% in the Central and Northern Plains, while grassland areas shrink by 20 to 40% compared to the past 30 years.

Future changes relative to the 1981-2010 average.

Klemm, Briske, and Reeves: Potential Natural Vegetation and NPP Responses to Future Climates in the U.S. Great Plains. Ecosphere (accepted, in press).

Great Plains Climate Will Become More Extreme

Adapting to climate change also means adapting to a more variable climate – a challenge for cattle ranching. Dry years, like those in the 1950s and 1980s, have occurred about once per decade in the past. By the end of this century, those droughts could occur three to five times per decade, which would severely hurt ranching as it is notoriously slow in responding to environmental changes. Years with higher rainfall and lower temperatures (pluvial years), which could make up for lost forage in dry years, will occur far less frequently, as little as once every 20 years.

Klemm, Briske, and Reeves (2020): Vulnerability of Rangeland Beef Cattle Production to Climate-Induced NPP Fluctuations in the U.S. Great Plains. Global Change Biology.

Briske and Klemm: Extreme SPEI Projections Signal an Increase in Aridification Throughout the U.S. Great Plains (in draft).

The Economic Impacts of Climate Variability

Dry years, followed by extreme pluvial years (years with excess rainfall), followed by another dry year can push ranchers to the edge of their adaptive capacity. Feeding supplemental forage, like hay, can help making it through a bad year without selling carefully raised cattle. But if droughts persist, selling cattle (de-stocking) might be the only option to stay financially viable, albeit an expensive one as cattle prices are dictated by supply and demand. Rebuilding a herd through buying (re-stocking) is expensive, too, as supply and demand are again not on the ranchers' side. Diversified income, for example through ranch tourism, hunting, or off-ranch income through day jobs, can be a saving grace for ranchers during hard times.

Climate Variability Stretches Ranch Finances

Economic models show that changing rainfall patterns and loss of forage have led to ranches, on average, not turning a profit in one out of seven years (1.4 years per decade). In the future, as year-to-year rainfall variability will increase and strain adaptation efforts even more, the number of years with negative returns will increase. By the end of the century, climate models estimate an increase in rainfall variability by 26% in the Central Plains and by 52% in the Southern Plains. This would lead to more negative years as well, about one-in-five and one-in-three years (two and three years per decade), respectively.

New Sources of Income Are Necessary

As "bad" years occur more often, ranchers will eventually have to make up for income losses with other income, for example hunting, tourism, energy generation, or through "regular" jobs in town. At the same time, their ranch operations become smaller as more brood cows (mother cows) are sold and fewer calves are born.

Briske, Ritten, Campbell, Klemm, and King: Future Climate Variability Will Challenge Rangeland Beef Cattle Production in the Great Plains. Rangelands (in review).

Wind power old and new along Route 66 in the Texas panhandle.

Barriers to Adaptation

Ranchers are no stranger to changing their practices in order to keep up with environmental changes – that is how they got through the droughts of the 1950s, the 1980s, and the 2010s. However, their adaptive capacity (the ability to adapt to changes) might not be up to par with what is necessary to deal with future climate change.

Ranchers know they need to act, but many don't know how.

Many ranchers in the Great Plains are aware and concerned about the consequences of climate change. However, while 44% of them think it will impact them in a negative way, almost half are not sure exactly what climate change will do to their operations.

Adaptation is expensive.

In a study, three out of four ranchers in the Southern Plains admitted, they should take steps to adapt to greater climate variability. Many, however, did not know what exactly they should do or how to pay for the adaptation measures. One in three said, in order to afford it they would need to get as much out of the measure financially as they put in. One in six said the costs would have to be shared through government subsidies. About one in four could carry the costs on their own, but about the same said they could not afford any changes.

Campbell, Becerra, Middendorf, and Tomlinson (2019): Climate change beliefs, concerns, and attitudes of beef cattle producers in the Southern Great Plains. Climatic Change.

Ways to Adapt

Ranching – and agriculture in general – is one of the most weather- and climate-dependent industries. As our climate is changing, the ways we produce food need to change, too.

More Shade, New Breeds

Providing shade for cattle reduces heat stress and the risk of overheating, and increases feed efficiency, because the animals use less energy to cool themselves. Growing smaller cattle that can keep themselves cool more easily, and developing cross-breeds that are more adapted to drought and heat, like Australian Red Angus and Indian Brahman/Brangus breeds, also help adapt to warmer and dryer climates.

In crop production, practices like no-till farming can help reduce soil moisture loss, keep valuable nutrients in the soil, and reduce erosion of fertile top soil, while reducing costs for fuel, labor, and fertilizer.

Better Assistance and Research

Federal assistance programs, like crop and livestock insurance, are designed to cover financial losses from drought or heat. But they do little to encourage climate-smart practices. Government programs that encourage corn production for ethanol fuel production, work against other programs that have paid farmers to convert unproductive croplands into natural grasslands that provide natural habitats, control erosion, and reduce global warming.

As we experience more severe and more frequent droughts, insurance programs will become more expensive for tax payers, consuming funds that could be invested in proactive measures to reduce future losses. University and federal research towards sustainable cattle production, adaptive rangeland management, and improved weather and seasonal climate forecasting can help ranchers prepare for climate change and climate variability.

This research was funded through USDA-NIFA grant 2016-67003-24970.

Toni Klemm and David Briske (Texas A&M University) were the lead researchers and co-managers of this project. Additional expertise was contributed by Matt Reeves (U.S. Forest Service, Missoula, Montana), John Ritten (University of Wyoming), Amber Campbell (Kansas State University), and Audrey King (Oklahoma State University). Land cover data were generated by the Conservation Biology Institute (Corvallis, Oregon). Data storage and processing and IT support was provided by the South Central Climate Adaptation Science Center (Norman, Oklahoma).

© 2020 Toni Klemm


Toni Klemm