By Doug Graves
SUNMAN, Ind. – Earlier this month, the USDA invested $9 million in new Cooperative Extension and USDA Climate Hubs partnerships to bolster climate research and connect and share climate-smart solutions directly with the agricultural community.
The investment is part of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the nation’s leading competitive grants program for agricultural sciences. The AFRI program provides effective, translatable and scalable approaches to address climate change through regional partnerships, including the USDA Climate Hubs.
Those receiving funding (each at $1.5 million) are University of California, Pennsylvania State University, Montana State University, USDA Caribbean Climate Hub, The Desert Research Institute Native Climate in Reno, Nev., and The Ohio State University.
Ohio State is partnering with the Midwest Climate Hub and multiple universities to increase Midwest adoption of regionally scalable climate-smart activities. There are 10 Regional Climate Hubs across the nation.
The Midwest Climate Hub encompasses Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Missouri. The goal of each hub is to provide information that will help producers cope with climate change through linkages of research, education and extension partnerships.
Within each state are project areas (or farms) that are willing to participate in the USDA’s Climate Hub research, which will lead farmers to the adoption of climate-smart practices. One such Climate Hub project was conducted at Small Acres Family Farm in Dearborn County, Ind.
John and Jessica Small operate Small Acres Family Farm on 88 acres. Their primary enterprise is grass-fed lamb; 65 acres of the farm are in pasture. In the winter, their 150 sheep are fed hay and distillers grain. During the growing season, the animals are moved to fresh grass every three to five days. Their goal is to improve soil health, enhance the sustainability of their operation, and to produce some profit to supplement their off-farm income.
The Smalls want to farm in a manner that maintains the productivity of the farm forever. Last year they had hoped to improve on their forage. However, a summertime drought significantly impacted the growth and regeneration of their pastures, requiring them to feed hay starting in late October, instead of their usual Jan. 1 time frame, despite lower herd numbers.
The Smalls were inquisitive about climate change and took part in this Midwest Climate Hub project. An excerpt from the climate change “Challenges and Opportunities” assessment of the Small farm from the Midwest Climate Hub states that:
“Climate change will produce both challenges and opportunities for the Small farm operation. Increased rainfall and more extreme precipitation events may increase erosion and nutrient loss in soils, decreasing the farm’s productivity while also contributing to negative downstream effects.
“Wetter weather will also cause more mud in their pastures, which can be a stressful situation for livestock, especially the young lambs. Warmer temperatures in the summer can cause heat stress in the animals, while also contributing to decreased soil moisture. A lack of soil moisture during the growing season can significantly impact pasture growth and regeneration, which can lead to feed shortages and increased costs for purchasing hay.
“Opportunities are less numerous. However, pasture grasses could benefit from longer growing seasons, if there is enough moisture at the right times.”
The Smalls are aware that climate change may impact their farming practices even more significantly in the future and are looking for ways to adapt.
“These Climate Hubs are getting producers and growers to take climate change into consideration when it comes time to grow and harvest,” John Small said. “I know we’re trying to think that way. I think if you look at the weather patterns we’ve been having it becomes obvious – our summers have been hotter and rain events have been bigger. To me, things on the farm look different than it used to. This climate change seems like something people should be thinking toward.
“As the weather becomes more unpredictable it becomes harder to get into the fields and do the work in a timely fashion.”
Small said the winters in his part of the state keep getting warmer, the summers are hotter as well, and rainfall has increased.
“I’m not certain where they’re going to go with this research and it’ll be interesting to see what the outcome is,” Small said. “But we do need to start this conversation about climate change.”
An Adaptation Workbook was used to identify some potential adaptation actions for the Small farm. Several approaches were identified, including improving soil health, managing livestock for warmer and drier conditions, and diversifying the system with new varieties.
More specifically, to improve soil health, the Smalls will bring in off-farm inputs of organic matter, such as hay and horse manure. To prepare their livestock for a warmer and drier climate, they intend to plant trees for shade in pastures and have begun digging additional ponds for greater water availability. Another adaptation tactic they will employ is diversifying their pasture plantings to include species and varieties that are better adapted to the conditions they expect to see in the future.
“The USDA Climate Hubs have unmatched capacity to reach agricultural, Tribal and underserved communities, as well as educators and students, and our nation’s farmers directly,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “This research will accelerate the development, adoption and application of science-based, climate-smart practices that benefit everyone.”