How would climate change affect grazing cattle?

In an effort to determine how a warmer climate would affect grazing cattle, researchers at Kansas State University collected data on more than a quarter-million bison from North Dakota to Oklahoma. Joe Craine is a Research Assistant Professor at K-State; he says they found the further south you go, the smaller the bison, an average seven-year-old male in South Dakota weighed 1,900 pounds while in Oklahoma the same-aged animal averages 1,300 pounds. Manure samples also determined that the nitrogen levels and therefore protein in the grasses decreased as well from north to south.

Craine says they do not have enough data on bison to really determine if the animals are getting smaller from year-to-year in the same area although any climate-related decreases may be offset by improved genetics in the animals.

The goal of the project was to determine what affect increasing temperatures would have on cattle. Craine says since 1895 the average temperature has increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, converting the heat-related weight loss from bison to cattle, extrapolated out to the number of cattle grazing in the United States results in a $1 billion loss for the cattle industry. “The question is, is that already happening and we don’t know it?”

Craine says one thing that cattle producers need to think more seriously about is pasture management; things than can be done to improve the quality of the grasses that are growing. He says we could move cattle production more to the north, “But all of those places are going to get warmer” so the grass is going to degrade.

Craine stresses that these things happen gradually and often go unnoticed and that is why it is so important to monitor trends and conditions. He suggests collecting data on Angus because the breed is so popular across the plains. He also calls for more testing of manure to best determine what cattle are actually eating. “For bison we were surprised in that they were getting a large amount of their protein from plants we didn’t think they were even touching.” He says they think the same is true for cattle and if true, once those plants are identified, pastures could be managed to promote their growth.

“Long-term climate sensitivity of grazer performance: a cross-site study,” was recently published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS ONE.

AUDIO:Craine talks about the study 17:12 mp3

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