Cattle produce methane gas due to their digestion process. File photo.

Cariboo Calling: Climate change and ranching

Everyone and every industry has a relationship with climate change, but maybe not so unique as the one between it and ranching/agriculture.

The British Columbian government released its Preliminary Strategic Climate Risk Assessment for British Columbia in July of 2019.

Not only did the report say the province is already experiencing the effects of climate change, scientists expect these changes to “accelerate and intensify in the years ahead, creating risks to society, natural resources, and ecosystems.”

The report considers climate risks from 2040-2059 in order to help the provincial government act accordingly to prepare proactively for the heightened risk.

Severe wildfire season and seasonal water shortages were the two highest-ranked risks, according to the report, for the province in the 2050s. Heatwaves and long-term water shortages were also ranked high.

The impacts of seasonal and long-term water shortages will impact water-dependent industries such as ranching and farming, as well as drinking water quality, community water supply and ecosystem health,

“If such events occur more frequently in future, and particularly if they increase in magnitude, human health could be negatively affected by a rise in water-borne and vector-borne diseases. In addition, people with natural-resource-based livelihoods could face unemployment and lost livelihoods, which could result in psychological distress. Recovery from such extreme seasonal water shortages may take months and cost the economy and government millions of dollars,” stated the report.

Seasonal water shortages are expected to likely occur every three to ten years, but also once every two years or more frequently by 2050.

According Global Climate Change: Perspectives in the BC Cattle Ranching Industry penned by Sadie (nee Cox) Hunter in 2007, under the guidance of Wendy C. Gardner and Lauchlan H. Fraser at Thompson Rivers University (TRU), ranchers with more than 50 head of cattle said water availability was a serious challenge for their operations.

Water shortages have long-reaching effects on ranching. Livestock needs water to survive. But ranchers need the water to grow feed, irrigate their crop, and so on. Climate change also affects the quality of said crops and forage, as well as animal and milk production, livestock diseases, and animal reproduction.

Yet, with a worldwide improvement in the standard of living (and growing population), demand for livestock products is expected to double by 2050 according to Climate change and livestock: Impacts, adaptation, and mitigation, a study from the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, Michigan State University.

But what’s interesting is that the ranching industry is not just one of the biggest victims to climate change, it’s been one of it’s biggest contributors.

The livestock sector contributes 14.5 per cent of total man-made greenhouse gas emissions according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), most of this comes from beef and milk production operations. Of that 14.5 per cent, 40 per cent comes from enteric fermentation (the digestive process of ruminant animals, in this case, cattle) and 23 per cent in manure application

Cattle have multi-part specialized stomachs, allowing them to break down plants by fermenting and digesting them. Grass is harder for cattle to digest, so when they are consuming grass while grazing, they can produce methane and release it when they fart or burp. Methane is a greenhouse gas and the main constituent of natural gas. When it’s released it absorbs the sun’s heat, warming the atmosphere.

Manure also breaks down and produces methane.

However, ranchers have also been instigating change in the fight against climate change. Some changes within the ranching community include the diversification of livestock within species, different crop and feed varieties and practising different grazing methods to prevent overgrazing, allowing foliage to continue to grow.

“On the mitigation side, improvement of animal nutrition and genetics are important because enteric fermentation is a major GHG emitter in livestock production. However, the efficacy of these practices in reducing emissions is uncertain and more research is needed concerning effective mitigation practices related to enteric fermentation,” concluded the aforementioned MSU study.

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