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‘Change’ is the watchword in a warming world, says researcher

Longer summers and milder winters sound nice, but even the pluses come with some negatives

How will the Canadian cattle industry fare if global temperatures continue to rise?

Count a reduced feed demand, a longer grazing season, and higher forage production among the benefits — but also expect more extreme weather, pests, and transport headaches, according to University of Manitoba research scientist Kim Ominski.

Kim Ominski
photo: Supplied

“We know the future of our industry will include change,” the associate professor in the department of animal sciences said during a recent Beef Cattle Research Council webinar.

Scientists are looking at a number of possible shifts, said Ominski.

Warmer winters mean cattle don’t need as much feed to maintain body weight, so producers would see lower feed bills. Many have already stopped confinement over the winter and moved to extended grazing. Higher temperatures could result in a longer growing season and higher forage yields. But more spells above 0 C during the winter mean more crusted snow that makes it more difficult for cattle to get at swaths or other stockpiled feed.

Extreme weather also means more frequent and more intense summer heat waves, which ups both water consumption and the risk of heat stress. And warm snaps in winter also cause issues.

“Climate change can impact transportation as greater variability in temperature and precipitation can cause frequent freeze/thaw cycles and cause deterioration in road infrastructure,” said Ominski. “Extreme weather with road closures could cause costly interruptions in transport.”

In Western Canada, there has been a trend to warmer temperatures in winter, along with less snowfall. Over a 50-year time frame, the date of the last spring frost has varied from May 1 until the middle of June — a six-week difference.

“In addition to the variability we see in spring frost, we also see high variability in precipitation, said Ominski. “If we look at climate trends across the Prairies, we can say that production is limited by heat and by water. We see small increases in frost-free periods and heat units, but there is high year-to-year variability, which masks a very obvious trend.”

By 2050, temperatures will have increased between 1 C and 4 C, with the extra heat units increasing the length of the growing season and extending the range of crops north. But that also means more evapotranspiration in plants in a landscape susceptible to drought.

“We have to think about opportunities to capture run-off, and then store and use water for periods of deficit,” said Ominski.

So while warming and improved varieties could see crops such as soybeans and corn become common in Alberta, all crops will face more challenges. Warmer winters allow insects, fungi, weeds, and bacteria to more easily overwinter and also expand their range. And increased global trade also gives pests and disease the opportunity to spread.

“Certainly it will require increased vigilance and possible new vaccination strategies,” said Ominski.

Fortunately, there will likely be more global trade and an increased need for meat products in Asia, which could be good for Canadian cattle producers.

Improvements in production efficiencies, growth-promoting technologies, and cattle genomics along with improvements in field crop yields are all good signs for the sustainability of the sector.

The industry has made gradual shifts to better feed efficiency, and society is showing preference for certain production practices.

But the industry still needs to think about big shift changes, said Ominski.

One example is the use of perennial grains, which could be used in food products but also present an opportunity for feed.

Threats include the rise of synthetic meat grown from cell cultures; more people disapproving of livestock production or reducing meat consumption; and policies such as the ban on antibiotic use in Europe.

In order to safeguard its position, the sector needs more investment throughout the entire value chain, said Ominski. The industry also needs to communicate better — both with the public and between its various sectors. Information management and education will be the keys to successful adaptation, she said.

“We need visionary leaders who can engage stakeholders, who can instil public trust, and support policies for successful adaptation,” she said. “Successful adaptation for our industry will be about more than conserving what once was — it will be about surviving change.”

Dealing with change boils down to discovering and seizing new opportunities, but the cattle sector has that ability, she added.

“The industry has already demonstrated its capacity for adaptation and I think we need to be mindful that adaptation, innovation, and sound policy are key to successful adaptation for the future,” she said.

This article originally appeared on the Alberta Farmer Express.

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