Heat stress might curdle the dairy industry

Climate change is projected to result in higher average temperatures and more heat waves. According to estimates, 20% of Americans may experience temperatures higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit this week. At least 90 people have died as a result of the recent heatwaves in Pakistan and India, while certain regions have seen a 10 to 35 percent decrease in agricultural output.

The effects of heat stress on cattle, which are brought on by interactions between air temperature, humidity, sun radiation, and wind speed, may worsen as a result of rising global temperatures. Animals like cows and pigs find it harder to regulate their body temperatures as a result of the additional stress. Livestock's body temperatures can rise if they are unable to efficiently release heat, which can lower production and have an impact on the availability of food.

According to Amanda Stone, assistant professor and dairy expert at Mississippi State University, the dairy business is thought to be the one most susceptible to financial losses as a result of heat stress among the major animal industries in the US. The second most dangerous industry is beef cattle, but dairy is substantially more risky. It is essential to comprehend the magnitude of climate change's impact on cow productivity in order to reduce its impacts and maintain the $827 billion global dairy sector.

Increasing global temperatures will affect cattle production

According to Philip Thornton, principal scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute and flagship leader in the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security, heat stress not only affects cattle behavior and welfare but also their feed intake, productivity, and animal fertility.

“Animals eat less and increase their respiration, so more energy is expended on trying to keep cool, with less energy available for meat and milk production,” he continued.

Additionally, it makes them more susceptible to illnesses, and in conditions of acute heat stress, it also makes them more likely to die. In Kansas, one of the biggest producers of cattle in the nation, excessive heat recently claimed the lives of thousands of cattle.

According to a March study that appeared in The Lancet Planetary Health, under a high greenhouse gas (GHG) emission scenario, the impact of climate change-related heat stress on dairy and beef cattle production could result in global production losses of meat and milk totaling about $40 billion per year by the end of the century. Producers may be looking at a loss of almost $15 million, even in the best-case scenario with low emissions.

The scientists used several GHG emission scenarios to forecast how the animal's feed intake would alter in response to hot, humid conditions in order to calculate these losses. According to Thornton, one of the study's authors, they transformed these variations in feed consumption into variations in milk and meat output, and then they priced them using prices from 2005.

The study estimates that under both high and low emission scenarios, the losses in tropical regions will be greater than those in temperate regions. “Some parts of the northern temperate areas of the globe may see increased production as cold spells decline,” Thornton stated. “In other words, more of the energy in the feed eaten by animals can go towards meat and milk production, rather than keeping the animal warm.”

The effects of heat stress on cattle can have an influence on both consumers and livestock producers' access to food and dietary variety. According to Thornton, customers may see an increase in the price of meat and milk, while producers may see their income decline, assets disappear, and the resilience of their livelihoods weaken.

According to Stone, because the food supply depends on farm-produced goods, any disturbance in these systems has an impact on the whole food supply chain.“We may see a shift in where these farms are in relation to our consumers—for example, ‘local’ may be a farm 100 miles away instead of 10—and there will be fewer farms with more cows supplying all our needs,” she continues.

Therefore, it's critical to reduce the effects of rising heat stress on cow output.

Farmers might use different adaption strategies.

But even amid record-breaking heat, producers may use a variety of adaption techniques to keep their cows cool.

In confinement operations where cows are housed in a barn, fans and sprinklers can be utilized to produce an evaporative cooling system because cows cannot sweat like people can. Stone. Additionally, she explains, there are sensor technologies that keep track of cow behavior as well as physiological and production changes and can modify barn temperatures in response to the cows' needs.

Due to their capacity as antioxidants, a variety of feed additives, such betaine or chromium, may reduce heat stress in outdoor production systems. According to Thornton, grazing systems for livestock and trees can be useful for providing shade for animals during hot and muggy times. He continues that some farmers in some regions of Africa are converting from cattle to more tolerant goats or even camels.

“In the longer term, there are prospects for breeding animals with greater heat stress tolerance, also perhaps through cross-breeding programs,” according to Thornton. “Such approaches may be quite costly and take several years to come to fruition, however.”

Policymakers will have to support the cattle industry

Dairy farmers must be paid more per unit of milk produced, according to Stone, in order to remain profitable in the face of growing production costs and decreasing output due to an increase in heat load.

“Policies that control the volatility of the milk market are of utmost importance to dairy farmers,” she continues. “We continue to improve our efficiencies to produce more milk with [fewer] cows, land, and resources, but there has been little reward for these improvements in a producers’ bottom line. The continued expectation that farmers can continue to do more and more with less and less has to have a breaking point and I believe we may be reaching it.”

Heat stress is a problem that both cattle and people working outside must contend with as the globe becomes hotter. In certain areas, especially in less developed nations, it will be too hot for animals to survive. Although this will be highly reliant on the nation's markets, economy, social and cultural issues, moving cattle production to more favorable locations inside countries may be a possibility, adds Thornton.

To prevent climate change and future global warming, all initiatives to treat the impacts of heat stress must be combined with a major reduction in emissions. 

“In the long run,” Thornton argues, “the most effective way to address the challenge is to redouble our collective efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly and as comprehensively as possible.”