Climate Change Effects On Wyoming Agriculture

May 30, 2014


In the next half century, scientists are predicting more extreme weather for Wyoming with bigger winter storms and hotter, dryer summers.  That’s according to the latest National Climate Assessment out this month. Wyoming’s farmers and ranchers are skeptical about climate change, but some of them have been forced to adjust their methods of production. 

Leonard Moser is a longtime wheat farmer on the high plains east of Cheyenne. He’s seen all kinds of weather in his 60 years, so he’s not so sure climate change is real.  “Well, I don’t believe in the climate change because we’ve seen a lot worse during the thirties when we had the Dust Bowl,” he says.

But Moser does admit he’s had to change his practices.  He has become an organic farmer because he believes the soil isn’t as good as it used to be.

“We been farming this ground for, oh, 100 to 120 years,” he says.  “And we’ve been taking a crop off of that ground every year.  And what we’re not doing is putting the micronutrients back into the ground.  And that’s one of the reasons you’re seeing crops not as healthy as they used to be.”

But a researcher at Harvard’s School of Public Health thinks there’s a better explanation for why crops aren’t as nutritious.  Samuel Myers conducted a large-scale study of CO2’s effects on crop nutrition in plants like wheat and beans.  While Moser blames unhealthy crops on poor soil, Myers says there’s another reason.  “Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are threatening global human nutrition by reducing the amount of really important nutrients for human health in crops like rice and wheat and soybeans.”

In other words, increasing CO2 may be causing plants to grow faster, diluting important nutrients like iron, zinc and protein. In the future, he says it may be necessary to engineer crops to act more like corn, which are better able to handle drought and heat.  

"It's a human-caused problem that we have the ability to deal with. So that's encouraging; we can fix it. The discouraging part is that we're not."

But there may be more to it than that.  Jay Norton is a professor of soil fertility at the University of Wyoming.  He says crop nutrition starts in the dirt.  And that’s because soil is ultimately a product of the climate.   

“I always link it to a compost pile,” Norton says.  “The more you stir it, the more rapidly it decomposes.  It’s the same with the soil.  The more you disturb it—either with tillage, with wetting and drying, with freeze/thaw—the more rapidly you accelerate decomposition of organic materials.  And then return of that fixed carbon to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.”

Norton says that’s why hot dry summers and wet winters will make Wyoming soils less fertile.  He says an example of how not to cultivate crops in Wyoming are sugar beets—the state’s number one crop.  They are planted in deep furrows that require a lot of wetting and drying.  He’s says that’s going to lead to trouble in the future.

“You can’t harvest sugar beets without seriously disturbing the soil,” Norton says.  “They also require high inputs of nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers.  So their footprint in terms of climate change is larger than crops that don’t require that level of disturbance.”

And it’s not just Wyoming’s soil that’s a concern.  The swings in wet and dry are also hurting livestock producers.  The nation’s cattle herd is the lowest in 60 years due to frequent droughts.  But heavy snows are also an issue.  This year’s wet winter and severe cold was especially challenging. University of Wyoming beef cattle specialist Steve Paisley says it forced ranchers to make some adjustments.  “The guys are moving their calving more to a later spring to try to avoid some of those extreme cold temperatures,” he says.

And ranchers are also scaling back how much hay they produce, how much forage grass they raise and how many head of cattle they stock.  But he says ranchers are also slow to adopt methods that would reduce the effects of climate change, such as using less fossil fuels and chemicals. 

“As scientists, maybe we get frustrated from the standpoint that people don’t make radical changes to their operations based on this data or that data,” Paisley says.  “In all honesty, ranchers based on experience, feel a conservative approach is the best approach.”

And that means Wyoming farmers and ranchers might be contributing to the very problem that’s making their livelihoods more difficult.  For Jay Norton, the soil guy, that’s worrisome. 

Norton says he hopes farmers and ranchers soon begin taking climate change seriously and making adjustments to protect the long term viability of Wyoming’s agriculture.