Americans may soon pay more for milk, cheese as rising heat stresses livestock

Farmers across the U.S. are struggling to keep their livestock cool enough amid rising temperatures and dangerous heat caused by climate change. As Illinois Public Media’s Dana Cronin reports, livestock producers are searching for ways to keep their animals safe.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Farmers across the country are struggling to keep their livestock cool enough, amid rising temperatures and dangerous heat caused by climate change.

    As Illinois Public Media's Dana Cronin reports, livestock producers are searching for ways to keep their animals safe.

  • Dana Cronin:

    It's feeding time on Borgic Farms in Raymond, Illinois. Hundreds of 12-week-old pigs are crammed into a long barn, climbing over each other in search of feed.

    It's pushing 90 degrees today, and the air here is humid and heavy with the smell of pig manure. Phil Borgic owns this farm. He just turned on eight massive cooling fans with six-foot blades to suck the hot air out of the barn.

  • Phil Borgic, Pig Farmer:

    If the temperature comes up, like this afternoon, and — where it gets warm enough, then we will turn on the water. But the first thing that comes is a breeze. And then it gets warmer yet. Then we bring out the garden hose and hose down the kids and cool them off.

  • Dana Cronin:

    Borgic's parents bought the farm in the 1950s, when most livestock farming was done outside. As the climate warmed over the years, they have since moved things indoors to help keep the pigs safe from increasingly high temperatures.

  • Phil Borgic:

    As we went through time, our fans kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger to pull more air through and over the top of the pigs then to get that heat out of there.

    And in the beginning, we didn't add water. And so, as we learned, we started adding that sprinkle of water then to help cool them off some more.

  • Dana Cronin:

    Average temperatures in Illinois have already gone up by between one and two degrees Fahrenheit over the past 100 years. Right now, the state sees about a week of temperatures above 95 degrees during the summer.

    Climate scientist and University of Illinois Professor Don Wuebbles says, if we continue emitting high levels of greenhouse gases, the state will only get hotter and the heat will last longer.

    Donald Wuebbles, University of Illinois: If you look at the high scenario, which is what we're following right now, most of the summer ends up being above 95 degrees, again, very different Illinois than we have right now.

  • Dana Cronin:

    Those scorching temperatures threaten not only farm animals' comfort and health, but also their productivity.

    Amanda Stone researches heat stress in dairy cows at Mississippi State University, and says when, the heat index is above 68 degrees Fahrenheit much cooler than the 90 degrees here today, a cow's milk production can decrease up to 25 percent.

  • Amanda Stone, Mississippi State University:

    So, if a cow is producing 100 pounds, during periods of heat stress, she's only producing 75 pounds.

  • Dana Cronin:

    And it's not just cows. It's goats too. Every morning at 5:00 a.m., the 100-plus goats here at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery outside Champaign, Illinois, file in for milking.

    Milk meters measure how much each goat produces per day. When it's hot, farm co-owner Wes Jarrell says there's less milk. And he has noticed the changing climate is having an impact.

  • Wes Jarrell, Goat Farmer:

    We've always known that, in the summer heat, their production goes down. And we know just by looking at the records that the duration of that and the intensity of that is increasing.

  • Dana Cronin:

    Prairie Fruits Farm is pasture-based, meaning the goats spend most of their time outside grazing on acres of grass and shrubs. Like dogs, Jarrell says goats pant when they get too hot, and take cover in the shade under trees.

    And while the farm does have a couple of small barns, he says they're making plans to build a bigger indoor facility, in part because it's getting harder to keep the goats cool enough.

  • Wes Jarrell:

    In a summer when it's going to be hotter and more humid, we need the best ventilation possible, and we need protection.

  • Dana Cronin:

    The price tag on that new barn is nearly $700,000. The Illinois Department of Agriculture doesn't currently offer any assistance or information for farmers dealing with the effects of heat stress on their animals.

    Jarrell says they will have to find some way to pay for the new barn, and there are few options, except to pass the costs on to consumers.

  • Wes Jarrell:

    Obviously, what we need to do is make sure we can sell the product and we can look at what customers are willing to pay. Are they willing to pay any more for a product that addresses all these other societal and environmental problems that we're talking about?

  • Dana Cronin:

    Jarrell's hoping the answer is yes, so don't be surprised when you start paying a little more for your milk, pork, or goat cheese. It may just be another cost of doing business in a changing climate.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Dana Cronin in Champaign, Illinois.

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