View the Gallery

Of Cows and Climate

CALS researchers are leading a far-reaching effort to gather information about greenhouse gases related to dairy—and to give farmers and other industry professionals the tools they need to reduce them.

Marty Matlock’s job is to help read the climate crystal ball. A professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of Arkansas who’s also conducting research for Dairy CAP, he’s been thinking about agriculture and climate change since he heard NASA’s Sally Ride speak about it in 1996.

A lot of ink has been spilled since then, but the overall picture has not changed. “The evidence is clear that we are seeing more frequent and intense extremes,” Matlock explains. “Dryer dries, hotter hots, wetter wets, colder colds.”

Never mind the politics, farmers understand that they’ve never seen weather quite like this. “You have to be able to understand and manage for weather extremes, and be able to explain to your kids how to understand and manage for weather extremes,” he says. “And we have to be able to anticipate 20, 30, 50 years from now what our challenges in production are going to be.”

Drought and flooding have broadly affected feed price and availability in the last few years. The good news is, under every scenario available from climate modelers, the corn belt will be warmer and wetter, with a net increase in productivity. “What I can tell you is you’ll probably be planting your soybeans earlier and earlier,” says Matlock.

The bad news is increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather. “We under-predicted how fast change would occur. There was an assumption that the system was more buffered than it is. That’s frightening, because that means the rate of change is going to increase,” Matlock warns. “That translates to increased risks for the producer.”

Dairy CAP should help reduce dairy’s contribution to climate change, but Matlock says it will also help dairy farmers adapt. “This is not casting blame, this is improving efficiency. This is improving resiliency of dairy production,” he argues. “And our ultimate goal is to give farmers and policy makers the tools to make better policy, to make our dairy producers more profitable, so that we have a viable, profitable dairy industry in 50 years.”

Ignore climate change and we will undermine our dairy capacity, a process that may have already begun. “The risk of status quo is chaos, and chaos is bad for an industry that really is generational,” he says. It takes a decade or more to build a good herd, and the recent drought and high price of forage have already forced herd reduction. “That means we’re losing capacity, we’re losing resiliency. It could take a decade to build those herd genetics back up,” says Matlock.