Every day at 5 a.m., Jason Schmidt, owner of Grazing Plains Farm LLC., begins his first milking of the day on his small dairy farm in Whitewater, Kans. Despite his 12 years of experience and love for the job, Jason has grown increasingly concerned about the future of his farm. The main cause of his worries is the extreme weather conditions that have been affecting his cows’ health and milk production. Over the past year, Kansas has been hit by heat waves and a prolonged drought, making it difficult for many farmers to maintain financial stability. This issue is not unique to the U.S., as July recently marked the hottest month ever recorded on Earth.
These extreme weather patterns are particularly challenging for small farmers like Jason. With limited funds to deal with the inconsistent weather, they struggle to take care of their cattle or crops. Tom Giessel, a 70-year-old farmer from Larned, Kans., shares his experiences with the impact of extreme heat and lack of precipitation on dryland farmers who rely solely on rainfall. He explains that the extended period without rain has a greater effect on crops when there is no alternative form of irrigation. The unpredictability of the weather now puts farmers in a highly precarious financial situation.
The current conditions in central and southern Kansas, where Jason and Tom are located, are classified as extreme drought on the drought monitoring scale. This puts significant strain on dairy farmers as their cows heavily rely on proper feed and water to maintain high milk production. Heat stress is a major issue for cows as they cannot sweat like humans. The excessive temperature inhibits their ability to produce milk, resulting in weight loss and decreased appetite. For Jason, this has led to a 15-20% decline in milk production, which is a substantial loss for a farmer with a small property. On a national scale, heat stress costs the dairy industry $1,500 million annually.
Apart from the impact on milk production, Jason also heavily relies on rain to grow feed for his cows. Crops like hay and pasture grasses depend on subsoil moisture, which has been greatly affected by the drought. Further, extreme weather conditions also disrupt the soil ecosystem, which plays a crucial role in nutrient absorption and plant growth. Omanjana Goswami, an interdisciplinary scientist, explains that droughts and high temperatures can negatively impact the chemical, physical, and biological activities in the soil. Moreover, droughts can cause the release of nitrogen, which contributes to the growth of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.
The combination of extreme heat and drought has significantly impacted wheat crops, as experienced by Tom and Jason. Tom’s winter wheat yield has plummeted from an average of 50-70 bushels per acre to only 11.4 bushels per acre. Jason’s father has also seen a decline in crop growth, forcing him to allow Jason to harvest the crops as feed for his cows. However, the overall impact of the drought is still strongly felt. These difficulties extend beyond individual farmers and have resulted in over 300 million lost labor hours in the U.S. agricultural sector since 2012.
Aside from the immediate weather challenges, the culture of farming also contributes to the struggle small farmers face. Traditionally, there has been pressure on farmers to “get big or get out,” leading to consolidation in the agricultural industry. The average crop size has shifted from midsize to larger operations, making it increasingly difficult for small farmers to compete. As a result, they often end up selling their cattle or land when faced with a decline in crops or a severe drought. The negative impact of this culture of farming is further exacerbated by the fluctuating milk prices and negative net returns for small dairy farmers like Jason.
In times of economic hardship, farmers can rely on supplemental programs like crop or milk insurance to provide financial support. However, these programs often incentivize overproduction rather than focusing on agricultural conservation. This is a concerning issue in light of climate change. Farmers like Tom and Jason are seeking broader support in the Farm Bill, which sets food policy in the U.S. every five years. Allocation of funds is key in determining the level of support for crop insurance and conservation programs. These programs play a vital role in teaching farmers conservation practices that improve soil health and resilience, such as crop rotation and integrating other sustainable practices on their farms.
While there have been efforts to enhance conservation programs, such as the introduction of the Inflation Reduction Act, farmers remain vigilant about ensuring that the allocated funds are actually utilized for conservation purposes. The urgency to adopt better farming practices is emphasized by experts who stress the need for resilient agricultural systems in the face of climate change. Transitioning to these practices requires time and effort, but it is crucial for the sustainability of food production. Without a shift towards more resilient farming systems, extreme weather events will continue to increase and create profound consequences worldwide.