Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Eagle Butte
Mostly sunny
Mostly sunny

Climate change impacts agriculture practices in Northern Plains

The Fourth Climate Assessment, released on Black Friday in November 2018 by the White House, is a comprehensive, scientific study-based report using data from a plethora of sources to inform lawmakers and the public about the impacts of and projections for climate change.

The first three articles printed in the West River Eagle since the climate assessment’s release included information about the overall report, and then highlights from the report about the impact of trapped gases on global warming and the current and potential influence of increasing temperatures on water supplies and usage in the Northern Great Plains Region (published Dec. 6 on page 1, and Dec. 13 and Dec. 20 on page 6).

Precipitation patterns directly impact agricultural practices, and the assessment includes a review of what changes have occurred in recent years as well as minimum and maximum projections of what weather patterns could yield in the next century should there be no change in how the nation manages carbon emissions.

Ranchers and farmers in South Dakota have a long history of dancing with the weather. Often a rancher can be heard commenting about a sunny day, “Just wait five minutes, and it will change.”

While the sudden changes in SD weather are a well-known expectation most seasoned ranchers and farmers are prepared to handle, its historical variability is no match for the current variability, and the “wait five minutes” joke seems less and less of an exaggeration than it once was.

The climate assessment report indicates that this variability will increase in frequency as temperatures rise and tilt the carefully tiered tower of the agricultural ecosystem.

Like a game of Jenga, each block plays a key role in stabilizing the system. As each block of the agricultural system shifts to a new position or role, the stability of the whole system is compromised.

For example, increases in regional temperatures have lead to a lengthening of the growing season for farmers and increases in precipitation. The precipitation events are more frequent and varied, with periods of intense rain leading to severe flooding, followed by damaging periods of drought that overall lead to fewer yields for farmers and ranchers.

Lonnie and Nancy Anderson operate a cattle ranch in Dupree and said that they have usually grown bailed their own hay and feed, but that their yields over the past 10 years have decreased, and some years they have had to purchase hay and feed to care for their cattle.

This kind of variation in climate is changing the consistency and frequency of variable weather patterns such that it is changing the measures farmers and ranchers must take to keep their operations going, and to make a living.

Currently, according to the climate assessment report, there has been a transition in agricultural land use in the region. In 2007, 10 million acres were enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), but as of 2017, more than half of that grassland was repurposed, with 60 percent of it being used for cropland.

In addition to this shift in land use, the assessment reports that there is “an increased prevalence of monoculture cropping.” Monocropping is the practice of growing a single crop year after year on the same land, increasing efficiency and simplifying the farming process while at the same time increasing the amount of product that can be produced and sold at one time.

The loss of land from the CRP program has had a negative impact on the ecosystem service benefits of conservation land “such as wildlife habitat and improved water and soil quality,” the climate assessment reports.

So, the changes in the degrees of weather severity and frequency have already changed the habits of some ranchers and farmers in the Northern Plains, and that change comes with some positive and negative consequences.

According to the climate assessment, these negatives may outweigh the positives, and lead to a need for farmers to change the way they approach their farming – a change that may not be possible with experience and historical knowledge alone – but will need the input of scientific research and strategic planning.

In long-term scenarios, the report suggests that there may even be changes in what products and type of agriculture can thrive in the region by the end of the 21st century if climate changes proceed at the current rate or faster.

The report lists nine projected conditions for areas of the Northern Great Plains that would require, “increased flexibility in resource management.”

“Proactive learning opportunities that integrate experimental and experiential knowledge – such as lessons learned from early adopters – can enhance decision-making,” the report states.

Some of the experimental programs that could be used in planning for future land management are the grass banking practices of the Nature Conservancy’s Matador Ranch, and the Collaborative Adaptive Rangeland Management experiment (CARM).

The Matador Ranch’s use of grassbanking, which is when “ranchers lease land from property owners at  discount in exchange for carrying out conservation-related projects on their pastures.”

This deal can also require “engagement between different land ownership types,including privately-owned land, leased land, state lands, and federal lands.”

CARM is a collaborative research effort that takes place at the ranch level, involves ranchers, conservation/environmental organizations, and public land managers, and “seeks to determine how adaptive rangeland management can be implemented in a manner that effectively responds to current and changing rangeland and weather/climatic conditions, incorporates active learning and includes management decisions from diverse stakeholder group based quantitative, repeatable measurements collected at multiple spatial and temporal scales.”