Under a bright blue, fall Oklahoma sky in a serene setting, cattle are doing what cattle do – quietly moving through a pasture looking for the next best thing to eat. As they graze, instruments are recording how much methane they are producing.
Sporting collars equipped with GPS tracking devices, these beef cattle are part of a sweeping five-year study led by Kansas State University to better understand beef production vulnerability across the southern Great Plains in the face of climate change.
The goal, said K-State agronomy professor Dan Devlin, is to increase the resiliency of beef cattle operations on grazing lands and wheat pasture so producers can better sustain future productivity through potential climate changes. As part of the work, researchers are also looking for the best ways to reduce beef production’s environmental footprint. That includes finding the most efficient ways to use water, best grazing practices, best forages and improving soil and water quality. Communicating the study’s findings to beef producers is another component of the project.
Forty-six scientists from K-State, the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, Tarleton State University, the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service are working on the five-year project. They represent several disciplines, including computer specialists, animal scientists, social scientists and agronomists. Funding for the project came from the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.
The team is into its second year of work on the $9.6 million, five-year project, formally titled Resilience and Vulnerability of Beef Cattle Production in the Southern Great Plains Under Changing Climate, Land Use and Markets.
The study is wide ranging, with social scientists working to determine producers’ and cooperative extension educators’ perceptions and attitudes about climate change and economists assessing its economic impact on the region. Extension specialists on the research team are focusing on a dialogue on resilience as the climate changes, communication to producers about the research and collecting data from producers.
The grazing research is being conducted on cattle and pastures near El Reno, Oklahoma.
“A couple of years ago we (K-State) did focus groups that included town leaders and farmers in a number of communities,” said Devlin who is the director of the Kansas Center for Agriculture and the Environment at K-State. “Almost all thought the climate has changed and are concerned.”
But people are also concerned that they will be forced into taking certain actions, which can influence attitudes about climate change in general, he said.
Why the southern Plains?
“Beef cattle raised on pasture, rangeland forages, and winter wheat in the southern Great Plains provide a significant portion of the nation’s red meat and makes up the largest land use and agricultural enterprise in the region,” Devlin said.
The number of cattle in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas combined totaled 21.0 million of the total U.S. cattle herd of 87.7 million head as of Jan. 1, 2014, according to the USDA (http://www.usda.gov/nass/PUBS/TODAYRPT/catl0114.pdf).
The area is subject, however, to a variable climate. Drought, high winds and blizzards are part of living on the southern Plains.
The results of the research, Devlin said, should not only help beef producers manage their operations more effectively even as climate change is occurring, but also help ranchers prepare for and mitigate the effects of the periodic droughts that happen in the region. To that end, studies are underway on wheat grazing as well as cover crops, which can help manage soil moisture, soil fertility and erosion.
Some cattle in the study have access to automated feeders called Greenfeeders. When an animal approaches, a computer chip in its collar signals the Greenfeeder which identifies the animal and also measures methane and carbon dioxide through its breath.
“One of the things we’re looking for is if there are genetic differences to determine if one breed produces more methane than another,” said Devlin, noting that the Greenfeeder technology was developed prior to the beginning of the study, but enhanced for this research.
Also, using atmospheric measurement devices called eddy correlation flux towers, researchers were able to establish baseline greenhouse gas production from the pastures being studied. In addition to studying pastures where cattle are grazing, pastures where no cattle are grazing are also being assessed to determine if methane is present unrelated to the animals. Those pastures include native tallgrass prairie in some and old world bluestem in others.
COSMOS (Cosmic-ray Soil Moisture Observing System) is a fairly new tool being used to measure soil moisture as part of the research. Rather than buried underground, it can be placed in the back of a vehicle and driven down county roads to map soil moisture along the way. By doing this, information can be gathered about soil moisture under cropland, as well as grassland.
Another part of the study has researchers in Texas studying animals that are indoors to determine how much methane they are emitting.
“We’ll feed the data being collected to a group that’s doing computer modeling,” Devlin said.
In the end, this new research will yield science-based information that producers and others can use to guide their own decisions, he added.