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Adapting to climate change on livestock farms.

22 July 2020
Type Media Article

Animal agriculture is particularly vulnerable to more extreme weather, which was seen during the recent droughts in the south and east of the Island. Farming practices focusing on adaptation may not be the same as measures designed to mitigate emissions. Researcher Donal O'Brien gives some information.

 

Animal Change: Adapting to climate change on livestock farms

In Ireland, climate change policy has primarily focused on developing strategies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and enhance carbon sequestration. Adaptation strategies, on the other hand, target the already occurring natural and unnatural changes in our climate. Animal agriculture is particularly vulnerable to more extreme weather, which was seen during the recent droughts in the south and east of the Island. Farming practices focusing on adaptation may not be the same as measures designed to mitigate emissions. For example, rainwater harvesting systems do not have a significant effect on greenhouse gas emissions, but are a potentially useful climate change adaptation measure.

The selection of adaptation measures for a livestock farm is influenced by multiple factors including land type, sward production and persistency, animal productivity and durability, infrastructure and economics. One of the main goals of Animal Change, a European research project on sustainable livestock production, was to identify measures that could assist livestock farms adapt to a more variable climate. For the project, researchers in Ireland and Europe first analysed the potential impact of climate change on the productivity of grassland and livestock, and then used technical data to devise adaptation strategies.

Potential impacts of climate change on livestock farming

Impacts on grassland:

  • Shorter gorwing season
  • Drought
  • Temperature stress
  • Flooding

Impacts on livestock:

  • New diseases
  • Heat stress
  • Land trafficability

The outcomes of the technical analysis were used to set-up a database on the multiple factors that affect the selection of adaptation options on-farm. The factors that influence measure selection were carefully evaluated by the project’s researchers before the team compiled climate change adaptation plans for livestock producers.

Adaptation measures selected for the Irish livestock farms within Animal Change

Measure:

  1. Fodder reserves
  2. Land drainage
  3. Water reservoir
  4. Diversity swards
  5. Supplementary feeds
  6. Sprinkler irrigation
  7. Breed robust livestock

The adaptation measures chosen were projected to maintain or enhance grass and livestock productivity under the expected impacts of climate change. The measures; fodder reserves, multi-species swards, water reservoirs and land drainage were considered the best adaptation measures. However, there is no “one-size fits all approach” for managing climate change adaptation. In other words, adaptation to climate change is site specific. It is therefore important to tailor any climate change adaptation plan to the production circumstances. In relation to the options targeting water, it has to be taken into account that management of water is not only necessary in prolonged periods of excessive precipitation, but also in periods of soil moisture deficits. The latter is predicted by climatologists to become more common in southern half of the country.

Apart from supplementary feeding, many of the measures listed for adapting to climate change complement measures that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, the adaptation options proposed in Animal Change need to be tested under Irish conditions, before the measures could be used on-farm. This would provide an insight into the level of support livestock producers will require to adapt to climate change.